by Trevor Whenham - 06/02/2006
The Belmont may be lacking the star horses that automatically make for great stories, but the jockeys who will be riding in the race provide plenty of stories to fill the time before the race. The Triple Crown trail has been remarkable this year for all the familiar jockeys that aren't here. Jerry Bailey is in the announcer's booth, Gary Stevens, Laffit Pincay and Pat Day have been failed by their bodies. The names we have grown used to are gone. That doesn't mean that the talent has diminished, though. The next generation of jockey's are taking the place of those old veterans, and the Belmont will be another notch in the belt of one of them. Here's a look at five of the jockeys for the race and their stories:
Edgar Prado - Prado was probably certain that he would be at the Belmont, but Deputy Glitters definitely isn't the horse he was hoping to be riding. Prado likely saved Barbaro's life when he pulled him up so quickly at the Belmont, but the injury has weighed heavily on Prado. He visited Barbaro this week and is trying to move on. A win on Deputy Glitters would help, but the horse will have to improve dramatically upon his eighth place showing in the Derby.
There is an interesting connection between jockey and trainer. If everything had gone as many had hoped, the Belmont would have been a showdown between Barbaro and Bernardini, the two horses who have shown themselves to be the two best three year olds on the track. Instead, Barbaro's jockey is riding another horse for Tom Albertrani, Bernardini's trainer, while the two star horses are far away from the race.
Prado's Triple Crown dreams came to a premature end this year, but Prado has a history of crushing those dreams for others. In 2002, Prado piloted Sarava, a 70-1 longshot, to a win when War Emblem proved that he couldn't handle the distance after a bad start. Two years later, Prado was on board Birdstone when that horse upset fan favorite Smarty Jones. Despite being happy about winning, Prado felt so bad about beating Smarty Jones that he apologized to the TV audience after the race.
Jeremy Rose - He returns to Belmont as defending champion after piloting Afleet Alex to a Belmont win following a triumph in the Preakness. The Belmont win was almost effortless, making fans regret that the horse only managed a third place finish behind Giacomo in the Derby. At the time, many people pointed at the inexperience of the 26-year-old jockey as the reason for the third place finish. Several journalists called for him to be replaced by a veteran rider. Rose proved he could handle the horse, and went on to ride him to become Champion three year old.
It hasn't been a completely smooth ride since then. Rose is no longer riding for Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchie, after the two had a falling out. He hasn't had a ton of success this year, especially in stakes races. He did manage a surprising third for Nick Zito on Hemingway's Key in the Preakness and he'll be looking to improve on that here.
With a resume of two wins and two third place finishes in four Triple Crown races, Rose has shown he definitely belongs. Not bad for a guy who hadn't ever been to a racetrack until 1998.
John Velazquez - No one has been riding as well as Velazquez the last two years. He was the winningest jockey in the nation in both 2004 and 2005, and he has two Eclipse awards to prove it. He's the first call rider for Todd Pletcher, and the two have combined to be almost unbeatable. People call them the Dynamic Duo. 2006 was shaping up to be just as strong until a bad spill at Keeneland in April left him with a broken shoulder and cracked ribs.
Velazquez was supposed to be out recuperating until at least July, but he's healed quickly. He won his first mount at Belmont today, and he vows to be 100 percent by the Stakes. Ramon Dominguez filled in for Velazquez on board Pletcher's Bluegrass Cat at the Derby. He did a heck of a job, finishing a solid second. Velazquez will take the reins back and will be hoping to take one step up the ladder in the Belmont. A Triple Crown race is all that is missing from Velazquez' resume. He has never won one, despite having had eight Derby mounts and nine rides in the Belmont. Interestingly, he has never ridden in the Preakness.
The Espinoza brothers - Mama Espinoza will be the proudest woman in Mexico on June 10, because both of her jockey sons have a mount in the Belmont. Older brother Jose will be back on Platinum Couple after a sixth place finish in the Preakness. Victor will climb aboard Sacred Light. Though this is the first stop on the Triple Crown trail for that horse, Victor was in the Derby this year, finishing a disappointing 16th with Sinister Minister. They will both be looking to outdo their sibling and bring home a win. Neither horse is particularly well regarded, so a win would be an impressive feat for either jockey.
Though the brothers have about an equal chance in the Belmont, Victor has clearly had the better career to this point. He won the Derby and the Preakness aboard War Emblem in 2002 and has won riding titles at several major tracks in California. He's the first call rider for Bob Baffert. Jose toils on the other side of the country in New York. He has been reasonably successful, but doesn't have nearly the success in major stakes that Victor does.
Fans of the longshot will be hoping for the Espinoza exacta to come in. Not only would it be a great story, but any combination of Platinum Couple and Sacred Light would pay an absolute fortune.