The littlest men often play the biggest role in the Kentucky Derby. Jockeys have to be just insane to do what they do on any random Wednesday. On a Derby day, though, with too many young horses fired up by a massive, drunken, screaming crowd, they are truly taking their lives in their own hands. If they win they will become immortal in the annals of the sport. But that just happens for one guy each year, and a large number of the other 19 will be blamed for their horse losing. It's a very tough way to make a living.
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The group of jockeys assembled this year is, as always, strong. Here's a look at seven of the more interesting jockey storylines for this year's run for the roses:
John Velazquez, Always Dreaming : The hall of famer has more than 5,700 career wins. The man he has to thank for a lot of those - trainer Todd Pletcher - is the guy the two-time Eclipse Award winning jockey has to blame for having only one Derby win. Velazquez has long been the first call rider for Pletcher, meaning he gets the pick of the stable for this race if there are multiple entrants and flexibility in the saddles. It also makes it very tough for him to avoid riding a Pletcher horse in the race, and since those horses have massively underachieved on this stage Velazquez has suffered. He has only one Derby win, and that came in 2011 when his Pletcher mount was scratched and he wound up on Animal Kingdom at the last minute. He's a strong rider, and he's on a better horse than many Pletcher has sent in recent years, so perhaps this is the year he changes his luck. Or maybe the trend just continues.
Brian Hernandez, Jr., McCraken: Hernandez typically isn't a guy who has big decisions to make, but this year he was in the driver's seat of the jockey merry-go-round. He not only had the regular mount on this horse but also on Girvin. He opted for this colt despite an underwhelming Blue Grass performance, and he has the chance to be haunted for eternity if it is proven he picked the wrong runner. He hasn't spent a lot of time at the highest levels of the sport, but he won the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2012 with Fort Larned, so he has some big-race game.
Victor Espinoza, Gormley: Espinoza is a guy you want on your horse in this race. He won the Derby with War Emblem, California Chrome and American Pharoah. He also won the Preakness on each, and he claimed the Triple Crown on American Pharoah. I don't always love his riding from day to day, but he is clearly and obviously at his best on these days. Gormley will need everything Espinoza can give him to win this one.
Flavien Prat, Battle of Midway: Prat is a young rider on the rise, and he has an incredibly bright future. I'm very surprised that he made the decision to jump onto this colt, though - a horse he has only ridden once and wasn't on last time out. This horse is working against some strong history, and I struggle to believe he is good enough. Prat could very likely have done better with a little patience. He's going to win some Triple Crown races before he's done, but if it's on this guy it will cost me plenty of money.
Mike Smith, Girvin: Smith, who is 51 and has won all of three Triple Crown races and a ridiculous record 25 Breeders' Cup races, is a big-race machine these days. He doesn't ride more than he has to, but when there is big money to be won he steps in and wins it. It's as if Tom Brady took the regular season off, showed up for the playoffs every year, and won Super Bowl MVP. He jumped right into this saddle seemingly minutes after Hernandez opted out. It was a little surprising he didn't wait longer, because he would have had his choice of any available horse. That he was eager to ride this horse is a serious compliment.
Mario Gutierrez, Irap: Gutierrez is an odd case. The rest of the year he is a very mediocre jockey - not a guy who I make a habit of trusting. In the last five years, though, he has won the Derby twice. He won on I'll Have Another in 2012 and again on Nyquist last year. Both are Doug O'Neill horses, and so is Irap. Maybe he can catch lightning again. He sits just 47th nationally in earnings, so he'll have to far exceed his average performance this year to get this one home.
Christophe Soumillon, Thunder Snow: Soumillon is unbeaten on this horse in the three times they have paired up, and now he is crossing the ocean to go for four straight. The Belgian jockey is most of a decade removed from his best seasons, but he has won major races on three continents, including everything worth winning in France and many in Britain and Hong Kong. His American experience is limited, but he knows how to shine on big days. How he'll handle the spectacle of the Derby is almost as much of a mystery, though, as how his horse will.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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