Ray Sibille and the George Woolf statue at Santa Anita (Photo courtesy of Santa Anita)
Mike Willman/Santa Anita Press Box
ARCADIA, Calif.— With the first of his 4,264 winners coming on June 29, 1969 at Evangeline Downs in his native Louisiana, the highlight of jockey Ray Sibille’s 35-year career came on Nov. 5, 1988, when he guided a 5-year-old gelding named Great Communicator to a gutty half length victory over a course softened by rain in the Grade I, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs. While that was undoubtedly the highlight of his career, Sibille experienced a once-in-a-lifetime thrill off the track when it was announced Wednesday that he would be inducted into the prestigious Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as part of its class of 2024 in June.
“You know, to these guys down here, going into the Louisiana Hall of Fame is better than the Saratoga Hall of Fame,” quipped Sibille, who rode full-time in Southern California from 1981 prior to shifting his tack to Northern California in 1992. “I stayed out of trouble, for the most part and now, looking back on my career, it’s a really good feeling knowing that you accomplished a lot and treated people right.
“When I first started out, every young jockey was under contract and you learned the fundamentals of horsemanship. A trainer named Buster Leger had my contract and boy, you had to work. No goin straight home after you galloped some horses. You had to groom ‘em, do the bandages, take care of their feet, do everything. And then, if we were running at night, you ponied horses to the gate.
“I’d never been outside Louisiana until 1973. I was 20 years old and I had an agent named Jimmy Daigrepont. We went to Chicago and right away at Arlington, I was third-leading rider and I thought, ‘Man, this is pretty good.’ We were together there about nine years and he did a great job. I was leading rider a few times at all three tracks, Arlington, Sportsman’s and at Hawthorne.”
In 1981, Sibille followed his lifetime friend, Eddie Delahoussaye, to Southern California in the fall of 1981 with legendary trainer “King” Richard Hazelton.
“Eddie and me were together from the time I was 14. He started riding full time out there in 1978 and I came out with Richard just to ride the Orange County Fair Meet at Los Alamitos,” Sibille recalled. “Well, Richard went back home at the end of the meet and I stayed.”
Indeed he did, becoming a fixture in a Santa Anita/Hollywood Park and Del Mar Jockeys’ Room that at the time, included the likes of Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Sandy Hawley, Fernando Toro, Patrick Valenzuela and others.
Regarding his biggest moment on the track, Great Communicator’s win in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Turf, run at a mile and one half over a grass course listed as “good,” Sibille fondly recalls the entire day, including a college football result.
“I didn’t really realize the magnitude of that race until I got the (Breeders’ Cup) ring, that’s when it really sunk in,” said Sibille, who currently works as an association clocker at Evangeline Downs, which is 12 miles from his place of birth and current home in Sunset, LA. “The other thing about that day is, I was in the jocks’ room all day and I was watching LSU and Alabama.
“I went out and rode the race (which went off at 5 p.m. ET) and did all the interviews after the race, with about 20 reporters. Then I got back in jocks’ room just in time to see LSU kick the game-winning field goal. We hadn’t beat Alabama in about 20 years, so that was the icing on the cake.
“And then the most amazing thing about that day was when I walked out of the interview room right behind the paddock at Churchill Downs. When I walked out into the paddock, I said ‘It’s dark!’ And they still had five minutes to the Classic with Alysheba. ‘How they gonna run this race, it’s dark?’ Well, they did, and Alysheba won it.”
Trained by fellow Cajun Thad Ackel, Great Communicator was a Kentucky-bred by Key to the Kingdom. With Sibille up, he had a sensational year throughout 1988, winning not only the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but prior to that the San Luis Obisbo, San Marcos and San Juan Capistrano Handicaps at Santa Anita and the Hollywood Turf Cup across town at Hollywood Park.
So, what in Ray Sibille’s opinion does a jockey need, besides good horses, to have a long, successful career?
“Well, back when we first started, we raced six days a week and took Sundays off,” he said. “So, we’d stay out all night on Saturday and sleep all day Sunday. But I’ll say this, the last 15 years I rode, I worked out a lot and I took care of myself really good…Didn’t drink near as much. And I guess that’s what kept me around for so long…I got a whole lot smarter and if you’re going to have a long career, you gotta make those adjustments.”
A winner of the 2005 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, Ray Sibille, who was born Sept. 13, 1952, will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in late June along with several other Louisiana legends including Drew Brees, who quarterbacked the New Orleans Saints to victory in the 2010 Super Bowl.