The littlest guys in the Kentucky Derby are often the most interesting. The jockeys can make or break the race. A good ride can turn a contender into a winner, and a bad ride has doomed many great horses in this event. In a race as wide open as the 2016 edition of the Kentucky Derby is, it's more than likely that after the race we will be talking about a rider and the difference they made in the end. It is, as always, a compelling group of riders assembled this year. Here's a snapshot of 11 of the more interesting stories:
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Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist: Gutierrez has a perfect Derby record - he won it in 2012 aboard I'll Have Another in his only appearance in the race. Not too many guys can match that - and he's aboard the favorite here with a shot to make it 2-for-2. His last Derby ride was as close to perfect as a jockey can have. My issue, though, is that on a day-to-day basis he just doesn't ride well enough often enough to inspire faith. He's not a net asset to this horse - though he obviously gets along well with him.
Kent Desormeaux, Exaggerator: Desormeaux probably has to worry least of all these guys about getting fired by his trainer since it's also his brother. Desormeaux is a legend - three Derby wins along with two in the Preakness and one in the Belmont. He's a long, long way from his prime - he won his last Eclipse Award as top jockey back in 1992 - but he's riding better now than he has in a long time. He's a threat.
Javier Castellano, Destin: This is an odd case. Castellano has won the Eclipse Award the last three years and is tops in the nation in earnings again this year, yet he doesn't have a Derby win to his credit and has only one Preakness success in his entire Triple Crown history. He has been hurt lately by primarily riding for Todd Pletcher - a very good thing every day but Derby Day. He'll win it one day, though.
Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit: Stevens is 53, but that doesn't matter - he'll just keep getting bionic parts to replace his own, and he'll be riding when he's 100. He rides very little day to day, but he shows up on big days and is tough to beat. He handles a horse like no other and has won this race three times - albeit not since 1997.
Florent Geroux, Gun Runner: Geroux, born in France, is 30 and is just starting to really figure things out. After several years of increasing but modest success, Geroux broke out nationally last year, winding up 13th in earnings. This year he is sitting fifth, and he has proven to be an elite and versatile rider who can be trusted. He doesn't have Triple Crown success to fall back on, but with three Breeders' Cup wins in the last two years we know he is comfortable in the bright spotlight.
John Velazquez, Outwork: Like Castellano, riding primarily for Pletcher has hurt Velazquez in this race. The only time he won the Derby was in 2011 when he was a last-minute replacement aboard Animal Kingdom after his scheduled Pletcher mount, Uncle Mo (coincidentally the sire of three horses in the race this year, including Outwork), was scratched. He's 44 but is riding as well and consistently as ever.
Mike Smith, Danzig Candy: Like Stevens, Smith is an old-timer who doesn't ride too much these days. He always has a prime mount on big days, though, and his earnings per mount are ridiculous. He has only one Derby win - on the long shot from the clouds Giacomo. That seems almost impossibly low for a guy like him, but he has also finished second four times, so he knows heartbreak in this race very well.
Irad Ortiz Jr., My Man Sam: Ortiz sits second in earnings nationally, just a few dollars ahead of his brother Jose in third. These kids can ride. He is short on experience in this race, but you can be sure that the Ortiz family home will have several Derby trophies on the mantlepiece before it's all over for them.
Victor Espinoza, Whitmore: The guy has won five of the last six Triple Crown races, including the first Triple Crown since 1978 last year. He knows a thing or two about riding in these races. He also won this race in 2002. Whitmore is not nearly in the class of California Chrome or American Pharoah, so he's taking a step back. War Emblem went off at more than 20/1 in 2002, though, so it's not like people were lined up to bet on him, either.
Yutaka Take, Lani: The 47 year old Take is a true legend in Japan. He has won everything that there is to win there and is perhaps the greatest jockey ever in that racing-mad country. He doesn't have much experience in the States, and he's new to the Triple Crown - and he's not on a horse I love, either - but it will still be a joy to watch the legend in action.
Emisael Jaramillo, Majesto: This is another international aspect of this race. Jaramillo is one of the all-time great jockeys in Venezuela. After much success there he came to Gulfstream to ride full-time last year and has enjoyed some solid success. The trainer of this horse happens to be Venezuela's all-time leading trainer who also made the move to Florida, so you can be sure they'll be tearing it up in Venezuela if this horse wins - which he won't.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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