With retirement of Big Three, here's who will step in
Posted: Tuesday May 2, 2006 11:40AM; Updated: Tuesday May 2, 2006 12:02PM
Rafael Bejarano (here after riding Record to a win at last Saturday's Derby Trial) is one of racing's most promising young jockeys.
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A new era will begin at Churchill Downs this Saturday.
For more than a decade, Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Gary Stevens -- all of whom have retired within the last year -- were the preeminent jockeys in America. Trainers and owners alike clamored for their services, hiring them to ride the fastest horses in the richest races. Between 1984 and 2005, the talented trio accounted for 10 annual money-winning titles and earned 12 Eclipse Awards as North America's most outstanding riders. They also won six Kentucky Derbys among them.
But none of them will be in the irons at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, the first time that has happened since 1983.
Now is as good a time as any, I suppose, to consider who will take their place at the top of the heap of big-money riders. There are several promising candidates, but only a few with experience at winning the Run for the Roses. Among the jockeys scheduled to ride in the 132nd Derby, only four have made it to the winner's circle: Kent Desormeaux (twice), Victor Espinoza, Mike Smith and Patrick Valenzuela.
Racing, of course, is no longer among the most popular sports in the country, so it's doubtful that any riders will ever rise to the lofty status attained by the likes of Eddie Arcaro or Bill Shoemaker. In their primes, those two men were as well known to the sporting public as Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. But the standards set by Bailey, Day and Stevens are well within reach for those riders who can maintain the proper balance of consistency, fearlessness and professionalism in their work.
Here's my ranking of the riders with the best chances to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of racing's Big Three:
John Velazquez: The Eclipse Award winner in '04 and '05 is one of the most consistent winners in the country. The regular rider for top trainer Todd Pletcher, Velazquez broke his shoulder blade in a horrific spill at Keeneland on April 20 and will miss the Derby. At the time, the 34-year-old Puerto Rican native ranked third in '06 earnings with $4.5 million.
Garrett Gomez: He has taken over Pletcher's mounts in the absence of Velazquez and will ride Bob and John at the Derby. Gomez, who has battled drug and alcohol problems in the past, won his first Breeders' Cup races last year in the Juvenile and the Mile and is the leading money winner of '06 with $4.7 million. One advantage: His agent is Ron Anderson -- considered by many to be the best rep in racing -- who handled Bailey's book until the rider retired in January.
Edgar Prado: The time is now for one of thoroughbred racing's older stars. The 39-year-old Prado led the country in wins in '97, '98 and '99 but hadn't experienced a defining victory until he won the Juvenile Fillies and the Sprint on Breeders' Cup day last October -- something he could top if he jockeys Barbaro to a win on Saturday.
Rafael Bejarano: Perhaps the most talented young rider in thoroughbred racing, the 23-year-old Bejarano has been lauded by Bailey, Day and Stevens as a worthy successor to their legacies. He led the country in wins in '04 with 455 and finished eighth in his first Derby last year, atop Andromeda's Hero, then won his first Breeders' Cup race in the Filly & Mare Turf last October. At Santa Anita last month, he won six races on a Saturday card riding six horses he had never seen before. He'll ride Point Determined on Saturday.
Kent Desormeaux: The 36-year-old Cajun is a member of the Hall of Fame, and still one of the most talented jockeys in the world. But his career has fallen on hard times of late. Desormeaux has won two Derbys and holds the single-season record for wins. His uncooperative behavior, however, has put him on the wrong side of such top-flight trainers as Bob Baffert and Neil Drysdale. Nobody has forgotten how Desormeaux's reckless ride cost Baffert's Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998. The rider recently moved his tack from California to New York to try to revive his career. He didn't help his reputation earlier this week, however, by oversleeping and missing an appointment to work out Sweetnorthernsaint at Churchill Downs for trainer Michael Trombetta.