First off, thank you to all the readers of Past the Wire’s initial Simply the Best, and all those who requested a part 2. Frankly, a part 2 was always part of the plan as it was not possible to include all of the greatest rides I’ve seen in one article. It would have taken a book, and while a book is in the works, that’s on a different subject.
Before we get right back into it, let’s review the criteria for making Past the Wire’s Simply the Best Jockey Rides list.
These are the best jockey rides I’ve seen since I have been watching races. Great rides that occurred prior to my time, so to speak, will have to go on another list. My criteria were rides where the jockey made the difference between winning or losing, or as you’ll see later, did something to make the ride extraordinary. As a student of the game, or a fan of these phenomenal athletes, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did writing it.
We’ll begin with Hall of Famer Mike Smith. It was pretty tough to choose one ride from Mike Smith for the list. I did the best I could but ultimately had to narrow it down to two, and include them both. He’s that good and has delivered that many times.
Mike Smith has been producing great rides for a long time now. He’s ridden some of the best horses of the modern era, especially fillies and mares, and by no means is he finished, as he rides the top 3-year-old filly Songbird. Mike is a thinking rider with a great opinion and feel for horses and exactly what is happening underneath him and around him. His great hands, senses, instincts and split second reactions have not only won him some of the biggest races in the world, but saved the lives of horses entrusted to him. One such horse that comes to mind is Itsmyluckyday.
Mike rode Itsmyluckyday, always a highly regarded Stakes performer and eventual Grade 1 winner, in the Pegasus Stakes on June 16th, 2013, in what was to be a prep for bigger and better things down the road. During the running of the race; however, Mike sensed or felt something was just not right. It was slight, and maybe he could have pressed on, but always putting the horse and safety first, Mike pulled him up. Examinations subsequently revealed a pelvis injury. Mike’s quick thinking and keen senses averted potential disaster and likely saved the horse’s life, let alone whatever else could have happened had he continued.
If you think you have to win a race to ride one of the greatest races of all time, then we are in disagreement. Saving lives and averting disaster counts and that ride fits the bill. Professionalism at the highest level.
Itsmyluckyday recovered and went on to win the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. Mike Smith wasn’t aboard that day but he deserves as much credit as anyone for that victory, just ask the horse.
Now on to two of Mike’s great winning rides. When a horse you like and want to bet on draws a horrible post, as a player you can simply adjust your wager, pass the race, bet something else, or even hedge. When you are an owner, trainer or jockey, and it’s one of the biggest races in the world, and you have been pointing for it all year, your options are a bit more limited. You have to make the best of it, and when they load them into the gate, all that pressure is on the jockey.
In one-mile turf races at Santa Anita, the outside posts are at a distinct disadvantage. The more competitive the race, and the higher quality of the competition only amplifies this. You have to be crafty to work out a trip from out there due to the short run into the first turn. You can get carried wide, caught wide, taken wide, or pushed out wide in any number of ways. If the race happens to be The Breeders’ Cup Mile, it’s even worse as the tight turn coming up so fast can be tough on European horses seeing that configuration for the initial time.
There is just no way Claiborne Farm, Shug McGaughey, and Mike Smith could have been happy with Lure drawing the 11 post for his repeat attempt in The Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1993. Even with bringing the best horse over to the paddock, this post creates problems and requires masterful timing and thinking by the rider. As aforementioned, you can almost always count on one of the European horses to blow that first turn and take some horses wide with them. If you are already in the 11 hole it’s going to take some maneuvering on your part to avoid this almost certain scenario.
Well, Lure drew the 11 post and there was not much Claiborne or Shug could do about it. It would come down to Mike Smith. Not unexpectedly, Ski Paradise and Barathea both went a little wide into that first turn. Although Mike broke from the 11 post, and there was somewhat of a rush for position into the first turn, by the time Ski Paradise and Barathea bore out, Mike already had Lure in the 5 path. He’d already saved considerable ground considering from where he had to start, but had to run fast to do it. That was the lesser of the two evils as Mike knew Lure was fast, and that he could carry that fast pace a mile. By the time they were on the backstretch Mike had Lure in the 2 path, on the lead, and in perfect position to repeat in this prestigious race.
Theoretically Mike had already done his job successfully negotiating Lure around that turn. Now it was up to Lure, Shug’s preparation, and Mike just doing his usual “Cool Hand Luke” and knowing when to spurt away. All three were perfect and Lure got his repeat. You can see and hear it here and watch how Mike starts working his trip as soon as they spring the gate.
1993 Breeders’ Cup Mile: Lure
If Bold Forbes didn’t want to go a mile and a half, then you can just as easily, and with as much conviction, say Holy Bull didn’t want to go a mile and a quarter. It’s likely he wouldn’t have had it not been for Mike Smith. But a mile and a quarter he got, and in no less than one of the most prestigious races in the world, the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
We saw Angel Cordero Jr. carry Bold Forbes home after that tactical move out into the middle of the track, and you are about to see Mike Smith carry Holy Bull home and help him get a distance a tad beyond this great champion’s scope.
You can see Mike’s brilliance both early and late in this race. Holy Bull, a front runner with plenty of early speed, came away running until it was apparent Comanche Trail was “hell bent” on the lead. Mike took back and let the other horse cook on the front, but never took far enough back to give up his inside position. Mike knew exactly what he was doing and I doubt he wanted to lose much if any ground at a mile and a quarter with Holy Bull. He held his position, took the lead at just the right time, it was as if he had the wire measured and knew just how fast Concern would be coming.
When they turned for home Holy Bull had run fast, and real close to how far he wanted to go. There was however the length of the Saratoga stretch to be negotiated and Holy Bull would need some help and encouragement from his partner Mike Smith. If you are a race watcher, and watch riders and horses alike you can almost see and feel Mike and Holy Bull sense Concern coming. I’d bet they heard him even with the roar of the crowd. Mike had already made his choice to distance himself from the others and now it was just a question of getting home.
We’ve all seen the strength and ability Mike has when he goes to the left hand with the stick, and I don’t recall anyone doing it better. He needed to be the best that day in August as he had to encourage Holy Bull left handed all the way to the wire while still riding low and in perfect rhythm to carry his horse home. You can watch this thrilling rendition of The Travers Stakes here and see Mike and Holy Bull become one and Mike really get him home. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The 1994 Travers Stakes: Holy Bull
The next great ride we’ll look at and discuss came in The Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. There is no scenario within The Sport of Kings that comes with as much pressure as a Triple Crown hanging in the balance. It’s the ultimate high stakes drama in our game, and the results have monumental financial and historical impacts. What comes next may surprise you.
Most are of the opinion Steve Cauthen, the bug boy sensation who was cast into the brightest light The Sport of Kings has to offer, at the young age of 16, rode one of the most spectacular races of all time when Affirmed beat Alydar in that historic Belmont Stakes. I saw it a little differently.
Sure Steve rode a great race and helped Affirmed become the 11th Triple Crown winner back in 1978. Steve handled the enormous pressure, pressure he likely could not see the magnitude of back then with the poise of a savvy journeyman. It was Jorge Velasquez, who in my opinion, rode a race for the ages. Unfortunately, nothing Jorge could do, and he did all that could be done, could get Alydar home first that fateful day.
Affirmed got the jump on Alydar in both The Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and beat the fast closing Alydar in both races. Steve Cauthen and Laz Barrera were not going to change anything for The Belmont. Why would they? You do not fix what isn’t broken. Jorge knew he had to try something different, and he mustered up all his skill and prowess on the back of a racehorse to try and do it. He engaged Affirmed early and often in a change of tactics he knew the slower pace and longer distance of The Belmont would allow. He pinned young Cauthen on the rail in the stretch. To his credit, Cauthen went to his left hand in deep stretch, and the gritty Affirmed responded, but in reality, Jorge had him pinned so tight he could not use his right hand.
You can’t ask more of a jockey than to put his horse in a position to win. As you watch this epic race between two great horses and rivals you’ll hear “Alydar put a head in front right in the middle of the stretch”. What more can you ask? Affirmed was just too tenacious and came back to win by a nose. Taking nothing away from the great race Cauthen rode to win, it was Jorge Velasquez who rode a race for the ages. Laz Barrera and the Affirmed entourage were joined in the winner’s circle by a fist pumping jubilant Oscar Barrera. Years later Oscar would become famous for his modest claiming horses moving up the ladder and showing the same tenacity Affirmed displayed.
1978 Belmont Stakes: Affirmed and Alydar
Luis Barrera, another brother of Laz won his own classic, again The Belmont Stakes, when young New York regular George Martens gave a heady ride to Summing, seizing the lead with a rail move on the backstretch when it seemed nobody wanted the front. It was an aggressive move in a mile and a half race. George worked that early move to perfection and managed to last for the win. Another truly great ride you won’t want to miss, and those Barrera brothers sure could get the most out of a horse. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was all in on Highland Blade.
1981 Belmont Stakes: Summing
This was no Stakes race, and had no historic ramifications, unless of course your name is Javier Castellano. I’m pretty sure Javier thinks it was an important race but to Edgar Prado and all riders it was just another day at the office. Laying it all on the line and competing for wins but remaining true sportsman and brothers in a fraternity of athletes never given their just due. Here you can watch Edgar use his whip to lift the reins Castellano dropped, creating and avoiding what could have been a disastrous situation. For the record, both Edgar and Javier have given more than their fair share of great rides but this act of selflessness makes the list. Get em Edgar!
Edgar saves Javier
We’ve all heard the expression to steal a race, or get robbed without a gun. Well that’s what you will see right here by masterful Gary Stevens as he steals the $1,000,000.00 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with One Dreamer. The call was “you just witnessed a felony” and that’s what it was in this stellar field that included amongst others, Hollywood Wildcat and Heavenly Prize. Gary not only had to steal it, but he had to really get down and work to keep it that last sixteenth of a mile. This was a ride and a half.
1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff: One Dreamer
There was no way we could discuss the greatest rides I’ve seen and not include one from none other than Willie the Shoe, Willie Shoemaker himself. His ride on Ferdinand was flawless, and with such finesse, it has to make our list. He weaved through the field like the artist he was, and when the time came to dive inside, he did just that. The fact this ride came so late in his career makes it all the more special.
1986 Kentucky Derby: Ferdinand
We all know Pat Day was King in Kentucky and delivered his fair share of great rides. It was home to him and he was tough to beat at any Kentucky track. He was even tougher to beat if he was gunning for his sixth win on the card, in the day’s biggest race, the $500,000.00 Lanes End Stakes. Back on March 23rd, 2003, Norberto Arroyo Jr. showed Pat what a true New York hero can truly be like.
Norberto was in town to ride New York Hero, named for the victims of the September 11th tragic terror attacks. Norberto, a tough and steady New York rider who made his bones in a tough colony, hooked up with Pat Day who was aboard Eugene’s Third Son through the stretch. True to his fearless nature and character Norberto kept after the 14-1 shot and outrode Pat day to the wire, and we know two things, a) that doesn’t happen often and b) it takes a world of determination and talent. You can see Norberto go to town here.
2003 Lanes End Stakes Stretch Run: New York Hero
The next two we’ll look at involve their share of controversy. Who can forget Pat Day and Wild Again just refusing to lose the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic in a race that had its fair share of bumping near the wire. Cordero aboard Slew O Gold, who was reported to be running with a quarter crack and not at his best, ran gallant in defeat and one has to wonder if he was on his game would we have seen a different outcome? Gate Dancer with his odd hooded equipment under Laffit Pincay Jr. also ran huge. Pat and Laffit had Angel sandwiched. The three hit the wire together and after a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Wild Again was left the winner. You can see that classic race here.
1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic: Wild Again
While talking controversy, could anyone race ride and push the envelope like Angel Cordero Jr. could? Watch him intimidate only the second of three fillies to win the Run for the Roses, Genuine Risk, just enough to cost her the race but not enough to come down. Angel works his magic turning for home, and gets D Wayne Lukas, “The Coach” his first classic win. Race riding.
1980 Preakness: Codex
Chris McCarron worked his magic on Alysheba after a stumble in the stretch which could have turned out much worse. Not only did Chris avoid the spill that could have been, he won the race.
1987 Kentucky Derby Alysheba
If Chris McCarron impressed you, you have to give some kudos to Jeremy Rose for regathering Afleet Alex after almost going down turning for home in The Preakness.
2005 Preakness: Afleet Alex
Talking about horses who almost fell down and still won brings us to this old war horse, Crème de la Fete. A war horse in every sense of the word. You are about to see one of the most remarkable races ever run. We can’t give credit for the ride here although Don MacBeth, may he rest in peace, was a fine rider who delivered on many occasions. This day in April, at Aqueduct, it was all the horse though. Anyone who says they would have bet Crème de la Fete at the top of the stretch please raise your hand. If you think he will hit the board, again, please raise your hand. I was there that day and witnessed this. The most incredible part happens off camera near the top of the stretch. If you don’t believe me just find someone who was there, plenty of us are still around and remember. Crème de la Fete went down to his knees, got up, almost stopped completely, re broke into a gallop and then started running again.
Yes, a horse can fall down, get up, and still win. Crème de la Fete. Oscar Barrera!
Honorable Mention; Crème de la Fete
And there you have it, Simply the Best Part 2, some of the greatest rides ever. Next time you think jockeys don’t matter, or you feel like yelling after what you perceive as a bad ride, take a look at some of these, or go back to part 1. These pound for pound strongest athletes in the world are expected to control animals that weigh 1000 pounds more than they do. Don’t try that at home.
Wishing speedy recoveries to both Joel Rosario and Raphael Hernandez following their spill at Gulfstream this past weekend. As we look at these fantastic rides and displays of athleticism, let’s not forget how dangerous this game is for horse and rider. Condolences to the connections of Kandoo, RIP sweet girl.
Don’t blame me, they did it again, and you know who I mean.