The Right Call
By Kaitlin Free
Each year when the Kentucky Derby rolls around a few jockeys in the field must choose between mounts. Most jockeys are thrilled to be named on a Derby horse long shot or not, but some of the top jocks often get to pick their ride. As the clock winds down on this year’s renewal, horse racing anxiously awaited Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith’s decision. He was aboard both Roadster and Omaha Beach in their final Derby prep wins. Whether Smith would side with his loyalty to Baffert or his belief in Omaha Beach’s raw talent was anyone’s guess. After conferring with his agent among others, the latter won out. It has since been announced that Florent Geroux has inherited the mount on Roadster for the Kentucky Derby. Has Mike Smith chosen the right horse? Several times in history jockeys have chosen between mounts for one reason or another. Sometimes it lands you aboard a Triple Crown Winner, other times it puts you on the outside looking in. As we wait for what the future holds for Mike Smith and Omaha Beach, let’s revisit some of the most historical Derby mount choices.
The 1919 Kentucky Derby is quietly one of the most historic Kentucky Derbies ever ran in the race’s 145 year history. Not only did a maiden turned first Triple Crown Winner take the running, but also one of the first well documented mount conflicts occured. Commander Jack Ross was one of the top owners in the country at the time with the help of his stable’s retained trainer Guy Bedwell. Ross and Bedwell had partnered the prior year, becoming the country’s leading owner and trainer. The team had entered two in the 1919 Derby, the highly regarded Billy Kelly and his would be “rabbit” Sir Barton. As well as having a retained trainer, Ross had several contract riders that included Earl Sande and Johnny Loftus. The two jockeys would get the leg up on the duo entered in the Derby. Both Loftus and Sande were up and coming young riders, though Loftus was considered to be the more “in the moment” jockey. Loftus had ridden in several Kentucky Derbies, winning in 1916 and finishing in the money on a couple other occasions. This would be Sande’s first Kentucky Derby ride ever. Sande was chosen as the jockey for the heavily favored Billy Kelly, which left Loftus on Sir Barton, who was often regarded as lazy and had never won a race. The racing public was left puzzled and annoyed by Ross and Bedwell’s choices regarding the assignments. Though it would be hard not to feel a bit slighted by the decision, Loftus took it in stride and would ride to instruction. He was asked to bother the front running Eternal and set the pace for Billy Kelly. Sir Barton broke the best in a field of 12 with Billy Kelly breaking dead last. Loftus gave Billy Kelly time to catch up, but the pair had no choice but to go on with it in the stretch. Sande and Billy Kelly eventually caught up to second, but Loftus and Sir Barton never wavered and were long gone. Sir Barton won his first race that day and gave Johnny Loftus his second Kentucky Derby. The pair continued to click, putting in three identical trips in the Preakness, Withers, and Belmont Stakes capturing the first American Triple Crown in history.
In the 1941 Kentucky Derby, a record crowd of 100,000 would be treated with an equally record breaking performance from a notoriously quirky horse and team. At the time of the race Calumet Farm, Ben Jones, and Eddie Arcaro were in the pinnacle of their careers. Calumet’s Derby hope that year was Whirlaway, a creature of habit known as “Mr. Longtail.” Whirlaway was known to be set in his ways, having the talent to win races but always seeming to ruin his own luck. Trainer Ben Jones was easily frustrated by the colt, describing him as “the dumbest horse I ever trained.” If somehow Whirlaway was to put it all together the others would be in trouble. Jones had some ideas, but would need a rider. Johnny Longden rode Whirlaway as a 2YO, but as the colt turned older he became more uncomfortable on the hard to control horse. Jones enlisted the help of Eddie Arcaro for the Kentucky Derby. Arcaro was known to be a fearless rider with iron hands, the perfect partner for the unruly Whirlaway. Now armed with Arcaro, trainer Ben Jones had one more trick up his sleeve. He used blinkers on Whirlaway, but completely cupped the horse’s right eye to keep him from seeing the outside rail. Arcaro was told to just let the horse go on his natural ability and maintain strong control to keep him from compromising himself. The blinkers would do the rest of the work. Jones’ hunch was absolutely correct, the pairing of Arcaro with the new blinkers was the perfect storm. Whirlaway and Eddie Arcaro broke Twenty Grand’s 10 year old stakes record as well as setting the largest margin of victory, which still stands to this day only being equaled by fellow Triple Crown Winner Assault.
The 1964 Kentucky Derby is the site of perhaps the most famous jockey mount conflict. Canadian Champion 2YO Northern Dancer was coming into the Derby at an all time high. Northern Dancer had captured both the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes in his two previous starts. Despite a highly impressive resume, he was considered to be only the second or third choice in the Derby. Many were more interested in an undefeated colt from California named Hill Rise. Hill Rise had been a perfect eight for eight in his career, winning the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby in great fashion. Northern Dancer’s preps were fantastic, but visually less impressive. Jockey Bill Shoemaker thought Northern Dancer was still improving, but was beginning to tire in his previous starts. Trainer Horatio Luro asked Shoemaker before their start in the Blue Grass Stakes if he would commit to riding Northern Dancer in the Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker was honest with Luro and declined the offer. Shoemaker was instead very excited to ride a horse he had never even seen in the flesh in the Derby, Hill Rise. Northern Dancer’s early career was riddled jockey changes for one reason or another. He had been piloted by Ron Turcotte, Paul Bohenko, Manuel Ycaza, Bobby Ussery, and Bill Shoemaker all before the Kentucky Derby. A couple of those jockeys had elected to hop off of Northern Dancer in favor for other horses. After doing just that, Ron Turcotte told Luro that Northern Dancer was the best 2YO in the world and that he had made a mistake. With Shoemaker’s departure Luro enlisted the help of Bill Hartack for the Blue Grass Stakes. The pair won the race in hand by a half length and Hartack was more than happy to stay aboard Northern Dancer in the Derby. On Kentucky Derby day, Hill Rise and Shoemaker went off as the favorite with Northern Dancer and Hartack settling for second choice. With Hill Rise caught in traffic most of the race, Hartack guided Northern Dancer to a perfect trip and began to take off in the stretch Hill Rise and Shoemaker found clear ground and unleashed a challenge but were too late. The newly minted team of Northern Dancer and Bill Hartack prevailed. The duo would remain together for the rest of Northern Dancer’s career.
The 2011 Kentucky Derby had a peculiar jockey mount switch. The field was a good one, with heavy favoritism on Dialed In and Juvenile Champion Uncle Mo. Uncle Mo was coming into the Derby off is first ever defeat – a third place to Toby’s Corner in the Wood Memorial. After the shocking upset, Uncle Mo was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection. He began a course of antibiotics and shipped to Churchill Downs still hoping for a bid in the Derby. Unfortunately Uncle Mo did not respond well and continued to regress, even losing a staggering 70 pounds in the week before the race. With less than a day to go before the Derby, connections made the decision to scratch. The scratch of Uncle Mo left Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez without a mount. Having finished second and third in the past, Velazquez had never won a Derby and thought thought this might be his best chance yet. In the same Derby, Spiral Stakes winner Animal Kingdom was also suddenly without a partner. Robby Albarado had been named to pilot the 30-1 shot but had to pull out due to injuries he suffered in a fall a few days prior.
Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion had high hopes for Animal Kingdom and were still confident in his Derby chances despite losing his assigned rider. The mount on Animal Kingdom was offered to Velazquez with less than a day until the race. He had never rode the colt who was considered somewhat of a long shot, but wanted to give him a try. Going off at final odds of 21-1, Velazquez gave Animal Kingdom a perfect trip and passed Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, and Shackleford quickly in the stretch. The pair won convincingly, giving John Velazquez his first Kentucky Derby win in 13 tries.
Two years after his win aboard Animal Kingdom, John Velazquez found himself choosing between mounts for the 2013 edition of the Derby. Similar to Mike Smith’s situation, Velazquez had been aboard to two contenders for their final preps. He guided Orb to a win in the Florida Derby and Verrazano in the Wood Memorial. Velazquez had rode both colts all Spring and had a difficult decision to make leading up to the Derby. Orb had developed over the winter into a strong 3YO, and Verrazano had never been beaten. Verrazano had just began his career in January 1 and nearly set a track record in his second start. The colt had done everything asked of him and did so visually impressive. Along with his confidence in Verrazano’s talent, Velazquez had a strong relationship with his trainer Todd Pletcher. So the decision was made and Velazquez chose Verrazano as his Derby mount. With Velazquez’ departure, Orb’s trainer Shug McGaughey offered Joel Rosario the ride.
Rosario had only rode in two Derbies prior finishing a fourth and a fifth. Rosario’s style fit Orb’s and the pair went off as the 5-1 favorites at post time. Orb was behind early but Rosario relaxed the horse and rallied him around the far turn. They made their move in the stretch and pulled away to win by 2 ½ lengths. John Velazquez and Verrazano never got going and finished a disappointing 14th. Orb’s Kentucky Derby win was the first for Rosario and for veteran trainer Shug McGaughey. The Derby took Joel Rosario to new heights in 2013, with a record year stamped with a win in the Dubai World Cup fittingly aboard Animal Kingdom.
History in the Sport of Kings demonstrates even the best of riders can make the wrong call at the most inopportune time. Will it be that way for Hall of Fame and Triple Crown winning rider Mike Smith this year? Will it be Florent Geroux who benefits? We will have to wait for the First Saturday in may to find out.