Like most of us who play the races, I pretty much assumed a jockey hopped aboard a horse, warmed the horse up, rode the race, jumped off the horse and moved on to the next mount. That it was that uncomplicated.
Thanks to the work of turf writers Bob Fortus and Gary West, who is a contributor to this website, now I know differently. The two have written a book "Ride To Win: An Inside Look at the Jockey's Craft" that dispels any myths that may exist that the job of riding a race horse is not a thinking man's game.
Fortus and West spent three years on the project and interviewed over 100 jockeys, trainers, owners, stewards and jockey agents. Among those interviewed were numerous Hall of Fame jockeys like Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Mike Smith, Calvin Borel, Gary Stevens.
No part of the jockeys' job is left uncovered. You'll learn about how they secure mounts, how they keep fit and maintain their weight, how they deal with the politics involved when it comes to keeping owners and trainers happy.
But the book's greatest accomplishment is to take us inside the heads of these great riders while the race is unfolding. The key to getting to the finish line first is more than having the fastest horse. It often involves having a strategy and the ability to think on your feet because in the 70 seconds or so it may take for the horse to get from the gate to the wire you might need to react to a hundred or so different situations. Excelling in these areas is often what separates the great jockeys from the ordinary jockeys.
Jerry Bailey may not have been the most talented jockey that ever rode but he very well could have been the smartest. Race after race, Bailey always seemed to be in the right place at the right time or found a way to outfox his rivals.
"Jockeys who rode with Bailey frequently have pointed out that he had uncanny vision ad prescience and that he was by far the best handicapper in the jockeys' room," West and Fortus write. "His colleagues considered him a master strategist and planner. Before the race, he wrote a script."
The book takes us through then 2000 Preakness, a race Bailey was not expected to win because his mount, Red Bullet, was supposed to be in over his head against the immensely talented Fusaichi Pegasus. Bailey figured the only way he was going to beat Fusaichi Pegasus was to catch him by surprise and get a jump on him at some point in the race. Bailey managed to take an inside route while Fusaichi Pegasus and Kent Desormeaux were content to race a few paths off the rail. That allowed Red Bullet to sneak up inside of Fusaichi Pegasus and when he did Bailey asked the horse for a major burst of speed. Seemingly catching Desormeaux and Fu Peg by surprise, Bailey quickly sprinted away from the favorite and opened up a daylight lead. From there, Fusaichi Pegasus could not catch him. Would Red Bullet have won that day with any jockey? Maybe. He was on his game and Fusaichi Pegasus regressed off his Kentucky Derby. But Bailey made sure that his horse had every advantage in the race, and that's what great jockeys do.
Bailey always made sure he was as prepared as possible for a race.
"Yes, I watched video, hours of video," he said. "I read the Racing Form like it was my bible."
"Ride to Win" also takes the reader through what was one of the most thrilling races of the modern era, the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff between Personal Ensign and Winning Colors. Riding Personal Ensign, whose undefeated streak was on the line, Randy Romero knew he was in trouble because he star filly was not handling the gooey Churchill Downs racetrack. With a mount lagging far behind a loose-on-the-lead star horse and showing no real interest in running, many jockeys would have simply given up. Romero refused to do so.
If Romero just left her to her own devices she was never going to win, so he had to think fast and come up with a plan. Personal Ensign wasn't giving Romero anywhere near her best, so he decided to hit her left-handed on the second turn, far sooner than he normally would have. Not only did that cause the filly to wake up a bit but it also made her drift out a couple of paths. There, she found footing that she could handle.
"Whoa, now we're going to have a horse race," Romero thought.
Closing with resolute determination, Personal Ensign did the impossible. She only ran for maybe three-sixteenths of a mile and had maybe 10 lengths to make up but somehow nipped Winning Colors at the wire.
"That afternoon at Churchill, it was as if Personal Ensign 'decided' that because Romero refused to give up she wouldn't either," the authors wrote. "Yes, Personal Ensign was a fighter, but to what degree was her spirit galvanized by the fighter who rode her throughout her career?"
Romero isn't the only tough, resolute jockey out there. West and Fortus uncovered the fact that Garrett Gomez rode Blame to victory over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic with a broken shoulder.
The book is a fascinating read and even the most knowledgeable racing fans will learn plenty, particularly that jockeys are a lot more than just passengers.