It was some time after a loss in the Whitney that owner William Warren made the decision to put Jerry Bailey on Saint Liam. That meant firing Edgar Prado, one of the best jockeys in America and a rider who had won four stakes races aboard Saint Liam, including two Grade I's. That didn't matter, not when Warren decided that there was too much on the line the remainder of the season. Nothing but the very best would do.
"I anguished over that decision." Warren said. "Jerry had ridden for me before. He rode a horse for me that Bobby Frankel trains. I felt I had to go where my heart and my mind told me to go. That's because of the great confidence I had in Jerry Bailey. I felt like I had to do the right thing by the horse."
It was that decision that was the difference between winning and losing the Breeders' Cup Classic. Would anybody but Jerry Bailey have won the Classic aboard Saint Liam? I say no.
Prado is a terrific rider, but this was a case where the Saint Liam camp needed a perfect ride. That's what Bailey gave them. He made every right move.
Saint Liam broke from post 12, which is a very tricky proposition at Belmont Park for a mile-and-a-quarter horse race. They start on the clubhouse turn and anyone breaking from way out there is guaranteed to lose a couple of lengths out of the gate. When Saint Liam took a right turn out of the gate, it appeared he was in big trouble.
"When he broke, he broke to the right," Bailey said. "He broke out and continued that way for three or four jumps until I could reel him in. When a horse does something a little out of the ordinary breaking, the last thing you want to do is jerk him quick because he has a tendency to stir him up, get him going. I didn't want to start the engine too soon, knowing I had a mile and a quarter to go."
This is where the race was won. From his tough beginning, Saint Liam somehow wound up perfectly placed down the backstretch, something that seemed inconceivable five jumps out of the gate. But Bailey had him tucked perfectly into fourth position down the backstretch, tracking hopeless longshots Sun King and Suave.
Bailey could sense that Saint Liam was going to be very hard to beat.
"I really felt confident the moment I turned up the backside," he said. "I knew I had the horses in front of me. I know Borrego comes with a strong run, but I was actually pretty confident all around."
Bailey's next move was to pounce on the turn. That's when he attacked with Saint Liam and took over the race. Putting away the horses in front of him was easy, but he had to make sure his horse had enough left in the tank to hold off the late-runners. He timed it perfectly.
That makes 15 Breeders' Cup wins for Bailey, most ever. That makes five Classic wins for Bailey, and that ties Chris McCarron for most wins in the richest race in North America. Yet he has been talking very seriously about retiring, possibly within a few weeks.
Bailey is 48 and he values the fact that, at least so far, he has come through this very dangerous business in one piece. He's made a ton of money, has won everything there is to win at least twice, is in the Hall of Fame and is widely recognized as the greatest jockey of his era. Maybe it's time to get out while he's still in one piece.
"This is a little different situation than athletes in other sports," Bailey said earlier this week. "Roger Clemens has every reason to believe he will walk home at the end of every game. I don't have that same chance of walking away from the racetrack every day. You have to factor in the possibility of the horrific happening. I have to weigh that versus my desire to ride and compete. I still love to compete, but I have to factor in the risk and injury factor. I also have to factor in that I have a son (Justin) who is rapidly running through his time with me."
He will continue to ride through Thanksgiving weekend, when he takes an annual vacation that last until opening day at Gulfstream Park, which is always in early January. While he's away from the track he will decide his future.
"I've always though that one horse wouldn't make up my mind for me one way or another," he said when asked if Saint Liam's win gave him renewed interest in riding next year. "I'll treat it this year like I have the past several. I'll finish after the Thanksgiving weekend, take time off with my family and decide if I want to do this for another year. It's wonderful to win these kind of races. I have a family and I miss them a lot and I'm on the road a lot. There is a lot to be weighed out."
Like the fact that when the big money is on the line nobody is better. Not too many people walk away when they are on top. Bailey will be back.