2014 Kentucky Derby Jockeys
by Trevor Whenham - 4/24/2014
They are the littlest men and women in professional sports, but there are no athletes any tougher, or more consistent willing to face serious risk, than the jockeys. In a race like the Kentucky Derby they are incredibly important. They need to avoid trouble in the frenzied start, weave through the immense amounts of traffic safely, and manage the finite resources of their horses as they tackle the brutal Derby distance. A good ride can elevate a horse, and a lousy ride has destroyed the Derby for many promising runners.
As we look towards the biggest of races this year, here are seven 2014 Kentucky Derby jockeys with the most compelling storylines:
Gary Stevens, Candy Boy: Stevens has won each of the three Triple Crown races three times, so he is obviously a factor every time he appears in this race. It's the last year, though, that really makes him remarkable. Stevens, who is 51, was forced to retire in 2005 because his knees couldn't stand up to the beating anymore. In January of 2013, though, he announced his return. It seemed like a novelty move that would amount to nothing. All he has done since then, though, is win the Preakness, the Breeders' Cup Classic and Distaff, and several other big races. He rides a very light schedule, but there have only been a small handful of guys in history who could manage a horse better than Stevens, and he is motivated by the big prizes. He'll get the best out of this horse.
Mike Smith, Hoppertunity: Smith is three years younger than Stevens, but has a very similar approach these days - save yourself for the days that count. He has won each Triple Crown race, and he won his second Belmont last year. He also won three more Breeders' Cup races last year to pad his lead as the winningest Breeders' Cup jockey ever. He currently sits second in the country in earnings, and that's despite having fewer than half as many starts than the jockeys in first and third. The guy knows how to ride, is riding as well as ever right now, and will draw a lot more public attention to this horse than a generic rider would.
Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz, Uncle Sigh and Samraat: These two will become the first brothers since Eddie and Sam Maple in 1984 to ride in the Derby in the same year if both horses make it to the starting gate. These two are a remarkable story. Jose sits sixth in the country in earnings, just over $13,000 ahead of Irad, who is seventh. Two brothers that good would be incredible no matter what - but it is especially amazing when you think that Irad, the older brother, won't turn 22 until August. These two are already stars, and they are going to be superstars. Watching this rivalry here - aboard two horses that built a rivalry in prep races, no less - will be more than a little bit of fun to watch.
Rosie Napravnik, Vicar's In Trouble: Napravnik is by far the best active female jockey, and she is fast staking a claim to being the best female jockey ever. This is her third try in four years to become the first woman to wear the roses. She may not have the horse to do it this year, but sooner or later she is going to win one. The public absolutely loves her story, so she is a magnet for public action.
Calvin Borel, Ride On Curlin: Borel became a legend by winning this race three times in four years, and he did so with crazy, rail-skimming rides. The public loves him, and they will also love the improbable story behind this horse and his trainer this year. That means that action will be directed towards him more than you would expect. The problem, though, is that Borel is just not riding very well right now. He's far from the top of his game, and he isn't the jockey that bettors think they are backing. He could still capture the magic of the place again, but there is a reason he is on a horse trained by a guy with seven starts this season instead of one of the major stables.
Victor Espinoza, California Chrome: Espinoza will be in the spotlight leading into this race because he is aboard what will likely be the heaviest favorite since Big Brown in 2008. He won the Derby and Preakness in 2002, so he can handle the race. He has not been riding at his top level since about 2007, though, and has really been short of top stakes wins in the last five years. He is having a better year this year than in recent years, but this horse has a lot to do with that. He has been aboard the horse for his last four starts, and all have been wins, so horse and rider clearly understand each other. All things being equal, though, I'd probably choose a different rider for a horse of this potential.
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