Jockeys fascinate me. Maybe it’s because I outgrew my jockey career in fifth grade. They are ridiculously brave and incredibly hard-working athletes who don’t get the recognition they deserve on the national sports stage. They also almost all bring fascinating stories with them.
For handicappers jockey are crucial. A great ride can turn a decent horse into a winner, while a lousy ride can turn a superstar into an also-ran. Here’s a look at seven of the more interesting stories from the jockey colony at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup:
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Talamo, who is just 22, is having a breakthrough year. He sits ninth in the country in earnings, and is running away with the riding title at the current meet at Breeders’ Cup host Santa Anita — he has 30 wins, and Rafael Bejarano is second with 20. Talamo has one Breeders’ Cup win — on California Flag in the Turf Sprint in 2009 at Santa Anita. He’s never had a shot for glory like he has this year, though. He has 10 mounts over the two days, including another shot at the Turf Sprint on the ageless California Flag. He’s not riding any favorites and there are some big prices, so if he does get another win he’ll make some bettors very happy.
Smith is tied with long-retired Jerry Bailey for the most Breeders’ Cup wins with 15. With another win or two he could not only secure the record for himself but also perhaps put the record out of reach for a long, long time. He had two wins last year, including the Classic, so he still has game on the big stage despite riding a limited schedule. He has eight mounts this year. Incredibly, three of them — Atigun, Royal Delta, and Amazombie — are favorites, so there is a good chance that Smith — who knows this track as well as anyone on the planet — will add to his total.
Gomez is, in my eyes, the most talented active jockey there is. Injuries and some personal issues have severely affected him the last two years, though. He’s still relevant, but he’s not enjoying the same success that saw him lead the country in earnings from 2006 to 2009. He’s third in all-time wins with 12, and he has 10 shots here to add another win or two. Many are longshots, but a couple — including Beholder in the Juvenile Fillies — are very live.
Dettori, with 10 career wins, is the most successful of the European jockeys who annually make the trip over. He’s a flamboyant rider best known for his dismount after wins when he jumps from the back of his horse. He has five mounts this year, but only one — Nahrain in the Filly & Mare Turf — really excites me. He hasn’t won since 2010, and there is a solid chance he won’t add to that here.
Gutierrez’ is one of the stranger stories in recent times. He came from pretty much nowhere to ride brilliantly in winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness on I’ll Have Another. He seemed poised to win the Triple Crown before an injury to his horse ended that dream. It seemed the brilliant rides and the national attention would jumpstart his career, but he floundered through the summer. He took frequent time off, and he rarely won when he did ride. He has won only twice in 42 starts in the current Santa Anita meet — an impossibly bad success rate. He has five mounts here — mostly for the same trainer, Doug O’Neill, that brought him his Triple Crown success. The lowest odds on those horses, though, are at 15/1, so it would be a major surprise if he were to notch his first Breeders’ Cup win.
Baze is a living legend. He has won more races than any other jockey in history, and despite turning 54 this summer he not only leads the country in wins for the year but is winning races at a staggering 33 percent clip over more than 950 races this year. Despite the wins, though, he lacks a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup victory. He only has one shot this year, and it’s a 30/1 longshot. That horse is Class Included in the very deep Ladies’ Classic. While it’s obviously an uphill battle, the horse is intriguing — she has 10 wins and six second-places finishes in 16 career starts, though she has only raced in Seattle and Vancouver.
There has only ever been one female jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race — the great Julie Krone in the 2003 Juvenile Fillies. Napravnik has a chance to go down as the best woman ever to ride if she keeps her current trajectory up, and a Breeders’ Cup win would obviously help her case. She’s having a breakthrough year, and she sits eighth in the country in earnings with more than $10 million to date. She only has two runners this year, but both are very strong — Shanghai Bobby is the 2/1 favorite in the Juvenile, and Kauai Katie is a very live horse at 3/1 in the Juvenile Fillies.
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