Court Leaves Oaklawn with Milestones

May 6, 2022

Jon Court’s first victory at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting made him just the sixth jockey in Oaklawn history to reach 700 in a career. Court’s final victory of the meeting was one for the ages. 

Using information compiled and supplied by Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Court, 61, became the oldest jockey in American Thoroughbred history to win a $1 million race when Last Samurai captured the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles April 23 at Oaklawn.

The $1 million Oaklawn Handicap was the 843rd race in American Thoroughbred history with a listed seven-figure purse, according to Equibase. The Arlington Million Invitational was the first, Aug. 30, 1981, at Arlington Park. 

Court’s victory aboard Last Samurai came roughly 5 ½ months after Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 5 at Del Mar aboard Corniche. Smith turned 56 Aug. 10. 

The legendary Bill Shoemaker was 50 when he won the inaugural Arlington Million Invitational aboard John Henry and 56 when he won the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in 1987 aboard Ferdinand. Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark, now retired, also was 56 when he won the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) aboard Lovely Maria in 2015 at Churchill Downs.

But no jockey continues to outrun Father Time like Court, who, in 2019 at 58, became the oldest jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby and now is the first to win a $1 million Thoroughbred race in the United States as a sexagenarian. 

“It’s very satisfying,” Court said April 24, moments after his final mount of the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting. “To get to ride in these races day-to-day, it keeps you very humbled, too, because it’s work and it’s hard and it’s difficult. Just to get there in the afternoon, much less on something live, and then to have something like yesterday transpire, it just makes you really appreciate the effort and the commitment and dedication just to get anything going in this game.”

Court rode Last Samurai ($27.80) for trainer Dallas Stewart and prominent Marshall, Ark., owner Willis Horton, perhaps the jockey’s biggest supporter. Court was aboard Last Samurai for his victory in the inaugural $150,000 Poinsettia Stakes Dec. 11 at Oaklawn and a runner-up finish, beaten a neck by a marathon star Lone Rock, in the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes April 3 at Oaklawn. 

Stewart said he used the 1 ½-mile Temperence Hill as an unlikely bridge to the Oaklawn Handicap after Last Samurai had a minor setback following a seventh-place finish in the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 12 at Oaklawn.

Court, unlike previous races, sent Last Samurai to the front in the Oaklawn Handicap and the 4-year-old Malibu Moon colt remained a forward factor, even after losing the lead down the backstretch. Still saving ground, Last Samurai poked his head in front turning for home and powered away from the field in the final furlong to win by four lengths. 

“He (Court) put on a clinic,” retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said before Oaklawn’s April 29 card. “He’s still a great rider and rode with a lot of confidence and believed in himself. Believed in the horse he was riding and took it to them.”

A contemporary of Court, Stevens, 59, retired from riding in November 2018 because of a neck injury. Stevens spent the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting as the agent for journeymen riders Geovanni Franco and Tiago Pereira and apprentice Jeremy Alicea and as an analyst for Fox Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races.” Both roles allowed Stevens to observe Court compete against riders more than half his age. 

“He still looks good on a horse,” Stevens said. “He always had looked good and still looks good.”

The Oaklawn Handicap represented Court’s third career victory in a $1 million race. The first two also were at Oaklawn in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2010 and 2011 aboard Line of David and Archarcharch, respectively. Court won the 2010 Arkansas Derby at 49 and the 2011 Arkansas Derby at 50. 

Court, Smith and Ricardo Santana Jr. (three) share the record for most career $1 million victories at Oaklawn, which has had 25 listed seven-figure races since the first (Arkansas Derby) in 2004. Santana, an eight-time Oaklawn riding champion, is 29. 

“Jon’s a good friend of mine,” Stewart, 62, said moments after the Oaklawn Handicap victory. “I worked for him back in the early 80s – I was a valet. Worked for him. My wife babysat his kids. We’re close. But as far as a career, he’s had a great career and this is a big (win) for him. I’m happy for him to do it there at Oaklawn. He did a great job. We’re very proud of him.”

The Oaklawn Handicap was Court’s 20th victory of the meeting and helped propel his purse earnings to $2,137,920, a single-season personal best in Hot Springs. Court won 10 races as an apprentice at Oaklawn in 1981 – a year after he launched his career – and was leading rider in 2000 with 69 victories. His 719 victories overall is sixth-highest in Oaklawn history. The Oaklawn Handicap was his 38th career stakes victory in Hot Springs and eighth in the last decade for Horton.

“The Hortons have been great to me,” Court said. “There have been some tough, difficult times trying to achieve our goals, but something like Last Samurai coming through in the Oaklawn Handicap is great. I’m so appreciative. I just wanted to finish somewhere competitive and then to win and pull away by four – Oh my goodness! Even with 42 years of experience under my belt, it’s still tough to sleep.”

Stewart said immediately following the Oaklawn Handicap that next-race plans were pending for Last Samurai, but the year-end goal is a Breeders’ Cup race Nov. 5 at Keeneland. Court turns 62 later in the month.

“I feel pretty good for my age,” Court said.

Now based at Churchill Downs, Court entered Thursday with 4,240 victories and $112,279,689 in purse earnings in his career, figures that ranked 66th and 54th, respectively, in North American history (United States and Canada), according to Equibase.

Kentucky Derby and Oaks Update:

Here is the Thursday report for Oaklawn-raced horses in the Derby and Oaks: 

Barber Road – William Simon’s Barber Road, who is seeking his first victory of the year Saturday after four straight stakes placings at Oaklawn, went out to gallop at 6:45 a.m. with regular rider Elexander Aguilar aboard and trainer John Ortiz watching closely from his stable pony. 

“He’s doing fantastic,” Ortiz said, “Elexander said he was really on the muscle. We’ll give him a walk day tomorrow. He’s fresh and happy.”

It was been a whirlwind week for Ortiz. Following Barber Road’s final work last Saturday, he flew to Arkansas where he won his third stakes at Oaklawn with Whelen Springs in the $150,000 Bachelor Stakes. He’s hoping for similar success Friday when he once again flies to Arkansas to saddle The Mary Rose in the Natural State Breeders’ Stakes before returning in time for the Kentucky Derby. 

“I love this,” said Ortiz, who also won Wednesday’s St. Matthews Overnight Stakes with Top Gunner at Churchill.

Cyberknife and Zozos – It was a busy morning for trainer Brad Cox as he entertained the owners of his Oaklawn-raced Kentucky Derby hopefuls, who were on hand to watch their horses each gallop 1 ½ miles during the special 7:30 a.m. with their regular exercise riders aboard. 

Owner Al Gold (Gold Square) was at the barn for the first time this week to watch his Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, named for the lifesaving device that help treat his prostrate cancer, train under rider Katie Tolbert. Barry and Joni Butzow, who named Zozos after their favorite restaurant in St. Johns in the U.S. Virgin Islands, watched their colt gallop under Kelvin Perez. 

“They are doing well, moving great,” Cox said. “I’m happy with where we are. “They all had great works. They stood in the gate last week and stood in the gate this week. We’re in a good spot.”

Ethereal Road – Aaron Sones and Julie Gilbert’s Ethereal Road, who broke his maiden and finished second in the Rebel Stakes (G2),  galloped 1 ½ miles during the special 7:30 a.m. training time Thursday. 

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who already has four Kentucky Derby victories among his previous 49 starters, believes that Ethereal Road has the ability to make a sustained run that could have him in the mix at the end of the Kentucky Derby.

“There are two that will happen if you are in position I’ve learned after all these years. If you can make a sustained long run, you have a chance to hit the board or even win the thing. The other thing is the stretch. There are longer stretches in the country, but this stretch (at Churchill) seems to work against them. Maybe it’s the energy. The crowd seems to take a little something out of these horses. The 20-horse field definitely takes a lot out of them. This stretch right here, it’s a gut check for these horses. But, this is why I have some confidence we could get a piece of it. He has the right style.” 

Secret Oath – Fans of Briland Farm’s multiple stakes winner Secret Oath, most recently third in the Arkansas Derby (G1),  have had to get up early all week to see her train and nothing changed Thursday. She and exercise rider Danielle Rosier were, as usual, among the first horses on the track when it opened at 5:15 a.m.

Yuugiri – Sekie and Tsunebumi Yoshihara’s Fantasy Stakes winner Yuugiri went to the track at 7:30 a.m. with trainer Rodolphe Brisset aboard. This was the final day of training for the Shackleford filly, who will walk Friday morning before the race that afternoon. 

“She’s going great,” Brisset said. “We galloped and visited the paddock. It’s the same routine we’ve had all week. She’s done very well handling everything.” 

Yuugiri is the third generation bred by her Japan-based owners and their first U.S. graded stakes winner. Her name means evening mist in Japanese, which could be fitting with the wet conditions expected Friday.  

Finish Lines

First post times for the final three days of the meeting (Friday-Sunday) are 12:15 p.m., 12;05 p.m. and 12:15 p.m. (Central), respectively. … Top Gunner, a two-time allowance winner at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting, captured the $160,000 St. Matthews Overnight Stakes for older sprinters Wednesday at Churchill Downs. Reylu Gutierrez rode Top Gunner ($12.60) for John Ortiz – Oaklawn’s fourth-leading trainer this season – and owners Brent and Sharilyn Gasaway (4 G Racing) of Little Rock, Ark. … Eight-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. won 58 races at the meeting to push his career total to 671, seventh-highest in Oaklawn history. … Jockey Isaac Castillo and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen teamed for two more victories last Sunday, winning the fifth race with favored Ari Oakley ($3.80) and the seventh race with Pinky Toe ($8.80). Castillo has 15 victories, including 10 for Asmussen, and $997,210 in purse earnings since making his Oaklawn debut April 7. Castillo previously had been based at Tampa Bay Downs. … Asmussen (58 victories) has clinched his 12th Oaklawn training title with three days remaining in the meeting. Robertino Diodoro is second with 42 victories. Asmussen and the late Hall of Famer Henry Forrest had previously shared the Oaklawn record for most career training titles with 11. Diodoro has 16 horses entered for the final three days of racing. … Asmussen enters the final three days of racing in 2021-2022 with 813 career victories at Oaklawn. Now No. 2 in all-time career Oaklawn victories, Asmussen is on pace to surpass the late Bob Holthus (867) at the 2022-2023 meeting. 

Oaklawn Park Press Release

Photo: Jon Court, (Coady Photography)

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