In horse racing the littlest guys are often both the most important and the most interesting. A good ride by a jockey can make a good horse a great one, and a bad ride can throw away a race - and your investment, too. You would think that any jockey that rides in the Kentucky Derby would be a great rider. After all, there are only 20 spots in the starting gate, and there are hundreds of professional jockeys in North America. This should be the cream of the crop. While that may or may not be the case, there is no doubt that the difference between jockeys in this race can be extreme - and can have a major impact on the outcome of the race.
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There can be added value in a horse because of the experience, aggressiveness or generally suitability of a jockey to this massive test - or vice versa. Here's a look at eight of the 20 jockeys who will be climbing aboard in this year's edition of the Run for the Roses:
Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah (5/2 morning line): Riding a horse like this means that Espinoza will face massive pressure leading up to the race and that he will be wearing a target during the race. There may be no guy better suited to that situation. Last year he won the first two legs of the Triple Crown aboard the favorite California Chrome. He also won the first two legs in 2002. He is not riding at his best overall anymore, but in big races he seems to rediscover himself, and he has generally been having a stronger year than we have been used to from him. He obviously fits the horse well, and they will be tough to beat.
Martin Garcia, Dortmund (3/1 morning line): Garcia has long been a Bob Baffert favorite - with a few rough patches along the way - so it is no surprise that he is on one of Baffert's two gems here. The two haven't won a Derby, but they won the Preakness in 2010 and the Breeders' Cup Classic last year, so he has some big-race game. Like Espinoza, he is obviously a good fit with an exceptional horse.
Mike Smith, Far Right (30/1 morning line): Smith, who has been a Hall of Famer for 12 years already, doesn't ride much these days. When he does, though, he often wins - especially on big days. He has a career Triple Crown - and an extra Belmont win, too. He's also the most successful Breeders' Cup jockey ever, so he obviously isn't scared of pressure. I am not at all convinced he has enough horse under him. He had several options, though, and he picked this guy - so that says something. One thing you can be certain of is that the horse will be better with him than it would have been without him.
Gary Stevens, Firing Line (12/1 morning line): Stevens is remarkable. He retired for several years with bad knees but then came back and won both the Preakness and the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2013. Then he was sidelined again with bad knees and needed one replaced. Now he's back yet again and riding pretty well. He has won each Triple Crown race three times and has 14 more second- or third-place finishes as well. He's not going to be uncomfortable. No guy has ever been better at sitting still on a horse and timing a move perfectly. With an explosive horse like this one - the pair won by almost 15 lengths last time out - that makes him dangerous.
Calvin Borel, El Kabeir (30/1 morning line): Don't bet on Bo-rail. Don't get sucked in. Sure, he has won the race three times and has done it each time by making crazy, aggressive moves. He is riding really, really poorly right now, though - a slump of a few years. He is a shadow of what he was, and doesn't have enough horse under him to hide his shortcomings.
Kent Desormeaux, Keen Ice (50/1 morning line): Desormeaux won 597 races in a year. That's incredible. It happened way back in 1989, though, so he can be forgiven for being far from his prime now, though. He has been much better in the last year and a bit than he had been, though. He also had a couple of options, so this horse gets a slight boost because Desormeaux chose him. He has won this race three times, so he knows his stuff. Those wins were on Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Big Brown. Keen Ice just doesn't fit in the conversation with those three. Good to see him here, but I won't be looking for him in the winner's circle.
John Velazquez, Carpe Diem (8/1 morning line): Velazquez is another Hall of Famer and a big-game hunter of the highest order, so he fits in this race. His biggest impediment to success, though, has been Todd Pletcher. Normally being the first-call rider for the most successful trainer in the country is a good thing, but Pletcher has struggled mightily in this race - one win in 40 tries. In fact, the only time Velazquez won the Derby was in 2011 when his Pletcher horse, Uncle Mo, was a late scratch and he picked up the mount on Animal Kingdom days before the race. This could be the best Pletcher horse he has been on in the Derby, though. Unfortunately, he also faces the two best opponents he has seen in the race.
Christophe Soumillion, Mubtaahij (20/1 morning line): Soumillon, like his mount, is a wild card in this race. Born in Belgium, he has had success throughout Europe while based mostly in France. He was one of the top jockeys on the planet six or eight years ago and is still relevant now. He has raced only 25 times in North America, though, winning three - the 2005 Breeders' Cup Turf and major turf races in 2010 and 2011. The Derby is new to him. Will he adapt to the craziness of it? Will his horse handle being shipped in from Dubai? Are either of them good enough at this point to beat the best that North America has to offer? Your guess is as good as mine.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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