Who is going to ride what horse in the Kentucky Derby? In the last suspenseful weeks before this year's classic, negotiations among jockeys, agents, owners and trainers have been so frantic and secretive that no one today can answer the question with certainty.
A horse owner approaching a major race always tries to tie up the best available jockey as early as possible. The jockey and his agent, on the other hand, prefer to play a waiting game, so they can land the horse which looks best at the last possible moment. But never has the pre-Derby scene been so confused. As one agent frankly puts it, "Look, the Derby is the Derby and there's only one derby that counts. Everybody wants to win it, and everybody is going to take his best hold."
The best holds in use right now might have been copied from a CIA handbook. They involve secret long-distance phone calls from agent to trainer or from jockey to owner and promises made following significant victories that are broken a day later. "There are a lot of honest and sincere jockeys and agents," says one trainer of a Kentucky Derby favorite, "but what you can expect from most of them at a time like this is a definite maybe. You just don't know who is going to ride your horse in the most important race of the year."
Four of the best riders in America are shown on the opposite page—Bill Shoemaker, Manuel Ycaza, Bill Hartack and Braulio Baeza. All of them are in such demand for probable Derby starters that they have been playing a game of musical mounts. Their final decisions may well determine the Derby favorite, or even the Derby winner.
Take the case of California's Derby favorite, Hill Rise. In winning four stakes in a row he was ridden each time to perfection by Don Pierce. Not even Shoemaker could have done better, and yet it is now Shoemaker who will handle Hill Rise in the Derby. Shoe and his agent, Harry Silbert, visited Hill Rise's trainer, Bill Finnegan, at Santa Anita before Shoemaker went to Florida to ride E. P. Taylor's Northern Dancer in the Florida Derby. Can we ride Hill Rise in Kentucky? they asked. Sure, said Finnegan, but only if I get a written agreement that you also will ride him in the Preakness and Belmont. We can't do that, said Silbert, until we see how Northern Dancer goes in Florida. The day after the Florida Derby, despite the fact that Northern Dancer won, Finnegan was told he had Shoe for all the Triple Crown races. Down goes Pierce.
To charges of poor sportsmanship, Hill Rise's owner, George Pope, has a frank answer: "I'm in this game for fun more than anything else, and I don't want to create bad feelings. But I feel very strongly that you can't win big races like the Derby if you don't have everything going for you—and that includes the best jockey. About Shoemaker I think two things: he's very experienced, and he's the best rider over a distance of ground. If, for example, Shoe got into trouble in the Derby and we lost I'd still say that we had the most experienced rider in America trying his best for us. If Pierce got into trouble and we lost I would forever blame myself, because I had the best rider in America ask to ride my horse and I turned him down."
Shoemaker's defection from Northern Dancer put the jockey merry-go-round into high gear. Trainer Mesh Tenney, who usually uses Shoe on the Rex Ellsworth horses he trains, said he did not particularly care that Bill was not interested in riding The Scoundrel for him. Said Tenney, "If he doesn't really want to ride my horse, I'd as soon get somebody who does." So Tenney lined up Ycaza for The Scoundrel. (Though under contract to Cain Hoy Stable, Ycaza was free to accept because Cain Hoy does not have a Derby starter.) Ycaza had previously ridden Roman Brother and Northern Dancer. "I could have had The Dancer all the way," said the fiery Panamanian, "but I was committed to Roman Brother through the Florida season. Look, I don't want to hurt people; in fact, I want to please everyone, but that everyone includes myself."
"The owners and trainers have helped create the problem," says outspoken Owner Alfred Vanderbilt, "by putting a premium on the services of a select few jockeys. Some will do anything to get one of the top half dozen riders—when any of the next 10 would do as well."
Two decades ago, Vanderbilt points out, most stables had a rider on contract, and the problems that are arising today were at a minimum. After Eddie Arcaro became the first of the top jockeys to quit contract riding and free-lance, the situation changed drastically. As purses grew bigger and bigger jockeys could earn more money by riding for lots of different owners with good horses than by sticking to one owner with a few good horses. The best of owners, too, will have seasons in which all their horses are poor.
The few contract jockeys left today are not always content. One such is Braulio Baeza, who works mostly for Owner Fred W. Hooper, but who is being openly courted by the Darby Dan Stable of John Galbreath. When Baeza tried to break his contract with Hooper recently, in order to accept more outside mounts, he was grounded by legal action. He still hopes to be back in action in time to ride Paul Mellon's Quadrangle in the Derby—that is, if Hooper does not insist on using Baeza elsewhere on Derby Day.