Jon Court to get first Derby shot

LEXINGTON, KY -- The article is from 1980, a common question-and-answer session in the Daily Racing Form.

"I'd like to ride a class horse," a youthful Jon Court is quoted as saying. "It makes a world of difference. That's what racing is all about. My long range goal is to try and win as many big-time races as possible, like the Kentucky Derby …"

Thirty-one years later, Court has ridden plenty of Thoroughbreds -- 29,190 of them, to be exact -- and of those, more than one had its' fair share of class. Still, a Kentucky Derby mount has eluded him. He's 50 now, with a lifetime of seasoning under his belt, and a colt named Archarcharch will be his first Derby starter. Trained by Court's father-in-law, Jinks Fires, the 3-year-old runner has never raced with another jockey in the saddle.

It's been a long road to Churchill Downs and the first Saturday in May for Court, a native of Gainesville, Fla., who grew up outside northern Orlando and first visited the winner's circle at the age of 19 at the now-defunct Centennial racetrack near Denver, Colorado (the horse's name was Neva's Hope, the date was April 7, 1980). A longtime figure at the Kentucky and Arkansas tracks, the jockey rode in Louisiana for 12 years before setting up shop in the Midwest where he was a perennial leading rider at Ellis Park and Hoosier. He moved his tack to California in 2004, but returned to Kentucky in 2009.

"We had some great years with the money figures and the graded races; some of the premier years of my career were on the California circuit," Court said. "But at the same time there's a lifestyle you have to adjust to. The purses out there are bigger but so is the cost of living and the stress. This country boy had a great time while he was out there, but felt like it was time to come back home. And it's funny that I came back home after chasing the dream and found a horse that looks promising. It was right in my own backyard, so to speak -- with my family -- that I got the Derby mount."

Last year looked as if it would be Court's first chance in the Run for the Roses when he won the same prep race on Line of David, a speedy colt trained by John Sadler. But that edition of the Arkansas Derby was a "pickup mount" situation, with Sadler naming Court to ride because the colt's regular jockey, Rafael Bejarano, was committed to ride the Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky that same day. When Line of David won in Arkansas, his chances in the Derby suddenly looked brighter, and Court found himself on the sidelines while Bejarano returned to the saddle that day. Line of David finished 17th.

"All I have to say about that is, 'Thank you, John Sadler, for giving me the opportunity,'" Court remarked. "The bottom line is, I got to ride a nice horse and win a million dollar race. What have I got to complain about? Are you kidding me? I'm still happy about it."

It wasn't the first time Court had ridden horses, won on them, then reached the Derby or similar important races to find he wasn't named in the saddle. Sitting in the jockeys' lounge at Keeneland a few weeks before the Derby (he was there to ride Dos Lunas; they finished second in the Grade 3 Appalachian), he took the opportunity to reflect upon a career that spans four decades and the fact that this time, knock on wood, he'd finally get the chance he'd always dreamed of.

"I've ridden a couple horses now that could have been my Derby shot, but each situation has its' own different elements, whether it was something personal or just racing politics or dynamics," he said. "It's just part of what happens and I learned to accept it long ago. No, it doesn't make me happy, but I'm not heartbroken. It doesn't make me lose my love for the game."

"I think a lot of good riders get skipped over because they just don't get the press or attention," Fires theorized. "That happens to a lot of jocks; there's only so many Derby horses to go around every year and the riders on the East coast and West Coast, they're pretty much in the forefront most of the time and that's what people see. But Jon gets along with my horse good. He has nice, quiet hands on a horse, and this horse has a soft mouth. They just fit each other well. And experience is one of the best things you can have, of course, there's no doubt about it."

Archarcharch, owned by Robert and Loval Yagos, is the perfect prospect to soothe Court's previous disappointments. The family connection is reassuring enough, and so is the colt's running style. A determined closer, he overcame adversity in many of his outings, including in the March 19 Rebel, when the horse next to him flipped over in the gate before the start and struck him with its' flailing hooves. Coming into that race off a score in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, he ran on to finish a game third behind The Factor before returning on April 9 to give Court his second Arkansas Derby in a row -- and Fires his initial Grade 1 win in more than 50 years of training. The son of Arch has won three of his six races, and has only finished off the board once (in the Jan 17 Smarty Jones Stakes, when he was fourth).

Goals like riding in the Derby keep you committed to the game that you've dedicated so much time and effort to. You stay gracious day in and day out.

-- Jockey Jon Court

"I may be biased, but there's no denying he has a very good manner about him," Court said. "He's been through some knocking around but he's very competitive; he doesn't by any means cower down or get intimidated. In his maiden race he was stuck on the inside behind horses, and there were about three of us driving into a hole and he was getting crowded. That was the first time he showed me that he could bully through, because I was just kind of trying to maintain some kind of steady position and actually I ended up pushing one of the other riders out because he was so strong."

"A polite, ambitious rider with considerable talent" was how Mark Gordon described Court in the Form in 1984. Not much has changed since then. Recently, he rode to victory in the 2003 Japan Cup Dirt on Fleetstreet Dancer and piloted 2005 Eclipse Award turf champion Leroidesanimaux to a pair of Grade 1 scores. He was honored with the 2007 George Woolfe Award presented by his peers. He's always represented the sport in a courteous, well-spoken manner. But over the years, he said, he's gotten a little bit savvier and a whole lot smarter.

"As years have gone by and developed into decades, I've become a little more settled and level-headed," the jockey explained. "Goals like riding in the Derby keep you committed to the game that you've dedicated so much time and effort to. You stay gracious day in and day out. There's your ups and downs -- some days you're grateful and other days you're disgruntled -- but that's just a part of life. You just have to persevere and keep moving forward."

This year has been a little slower for Court than average -- he's won just 15 races – but thanks to Archarcharch, he feels like he's right where he wants to be.

"I'm at a level now in the game in this last decade where I've really been enjoying my position," he said. "My age doesn't bother me as it may some. I'm enjoying the game and I'd like to ride for at least five more years."

Early Thursday morning, Court took his Derby horse out for a gallop beneath the Twin Spires. They spent some time in the paddock, walked around the oval, just enjoyed the opportunity of taking in the sights and sounds of the calm before the storm at Churchill. Perhaps the seasoned journeyman was picturing that empty grandstand full, and the sound of a thousand voices ringing in his ears.

"I've heard the veteran Derby riders say that if you're not getting excited or not getting a tear in your eye, if you can't feel your heart pounding, then you're not in the right game," he remarked. "I used to think at times that you could just eliminate that nervousness or emotion or anxiety, but actually it's a good thing as long as one doesn't overwhelm the other. As long as you're able to keep it all in balance, as long as the passion is still there, you know you belong."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.