Under the Radar Jockeys and the Kentucky Derby

March 28, 2023

Jareth Loveberry stamps his ticket towards the Derby aboard Two Phil’s in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (JennyPhoto/Past The Wire)

By Ross Blacker

This past weekend, riders Jareth Loveberry and Ken Tohill each won races that stamped their horse’s ticket to the first Saturday in May and a shot to win the Kentucky Derby. While both of their horses, barring injury, will be in the gate (Tohill’s mount, Sunland Derby longshot winner Wild On Ice has since been supplemented and therefore is eligible to run) it is no sure thing that these riders will be alongside their mounts.

While many so-called big-time outfits place horses in the Derby every year, there are some owners and trainers that literally have one shot, one chance at glory, and often times there is pressure from outside and even within the camp to make a jockey change. Some connections subscribe to the theory that knowing the horse ultimately is second and experience in big spots is of greater importance.

Bear in mind that the Derby is an anomaly in American racing since it is the only time these horses will ever face 19 others and experience not only navigating traffic but having a good sense of pace and not allowing the enormity of the moment to cloud or even overtake judgment is crucial.

In the case of Loveberry, who just three weeks sustained a hairline fracture in his tibia and came back quickly specifically to ride Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Two Phil’s, he has a long and successful association with the horse’s trainer Larry Rivelli. The partnership began at the now-defunct Arlington Park in Chicago and Loveberry actually moved his tack to Colonial Downs last summer to ride first call for Rivelli.

It is highly likely that Loveberry, who has publicly expressed on social media his excitement to ride in his very first Run for the Roses, has been assured that he has retained the mount and will be in Louisville the first Saturday in May assuming himself and the horse are healthy.

Tohill, who is the winningest rider in New Mexico history and despite prevailing in over 4,000 races and claiming north of $70M in lifetime purses, has never captured a graded stakes. That changed Sunday as Wild on Ice rewarded the faith of bettors (coming home at 35/1) and its connections. Given trainer Joel Marr’s history in New Mexico and familiarity with Tohill, it looks promising that the 59-year-old will get a Derby ride.

Tohill and Wild On Ice head to the winner’s circle (Coady Photography)

However, one needs to look back only as far as 2009 when regular riders Chantal Sutherland and then Casey Lambert were taken off eventual Derby (and Sunland Derby winner) victor Mine that Bird in favor of Calvin Borel. While there are examples of jockeys, despite public assurances and sentiment on their side, you only need to go back one year as 2022 Derby winner Rich Strike was piloted by little-known rider Sonny Leon as the trainer Eric Reed and the owners stayed loyal to their guy.

The story of Rich Strike is well known given its recency and given Leon’s nearly flawless ride, although some will argue that a suicidal early pace provided an ideal setup, may give connections going forward more reasons to stick with the jock that brought them to the brightest light in the sport.

Historical Look Back

In this space, I have chosen to shine the spotlight on jockeys since 2000 who beat the odds and got the call to go to Louisville, retaining mounts as connections of their horse valued familiarity with their animal over experience in big races. As you will undoubtedly glean from this chart, there have been varying degrees of success and in retrospect, some of these decisions to stay loyal were probably correct while others were not.

With the amount of money being spent and especially today, the proliferation of super trainers with a cadre of Derby horses year in and year out when under-the-radar connections (on the national stage) get the chance to run for the roses, it is definitely a difficult decision. It can be argued that yes the horse population in America continues to dwindle threatening the long-term survival of the game yet making the chances of getting a Derby horse greater. However, the reality remains that the odds of getting a horse from a breeding shed, sale or even claiming race to Louisville is astronomical and extremely unlikely.

Keep in mind that some jockeys who rode Derbys in the past may not be recognizable to all fans today. However, at the time they loaded in the gate the first Saturday in May, there were at the top of the sport and jockey standings, or close to it at the time and in some cases even today. Examples of these types of riders included Eibar Coa, Kevin Krigger, John McKee Donnie Meche, Larry Melancon and Luis Quinonez. Not immortals of the sport by any means, but certainly at the time, they were successful and profitable riders.

Mario Pino, who may not be widely known to casual observers of the sport, rode Hard Spun to a second-place showing in 2007 for trainer Larry Jones. The recently-retired Pino is a legend of the game though, capturing 7,001 wins in a career that began in 1977 and ended in 2021.

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