Jockey Speak

I am a great admirer of brevity in speech. And, since I am somewhat deaf, I am also a great admirer of clarity. Sometimes I think both auditory characteristics are on the decline. Seems to me a lot of people, particularly younger people today, talk too much, and converse more and more in a strange Daffy Duck, singsong dialect.

Whatever. In the case of jockeys, no athlete is called upon as demandingly in a day's work to demonstrate one's linguistic capabilities—and diplomacy—as are the people who ride racehorses. I admire much about jocks—certainly their patience in the demanding meet-and-greets before they ride into competition on half-ton, feisty animals. Even more I admire their mettle in the postmortems after an unsuccessful effort.

As I grow older—and more impatient—I do so marvel at the jockeys' required pre-race paddock demeanor. First, they must doff helmets and kiss the ladies. (This is something they are becoming more prone to do, as the whole world tends to adopt the practice of routinely kissing unacquainted and randomly encountered members of the opposite sex.) Next, of course, there is the posing for photos/selfies, laughing at tired old comments ("See you in the winners circle!"), and listening intently to mostly meaningless instructions from the trainer.

Admittedly, there are some jockeys (mostly renowned riders), who time their paddock entrances late so that they can jog immediately to the horse on the walking ring. But, not many of the young up-and-comers indulge themselves in the potentially risky avoidance of the expected pre-race ritual.

The real diplomacy comes after the race. The successful rides are certainly no problem; but the failures often present a challenge. The trainer must be protected, the hopes of the owner should never be completely dashed, but neither should his intelligence be insulted with some cockamamie excuse. Then, too, in most cases there would be a tendency to justify one's own questionable decisions made during the journey.

Most riders today are Hispanic, and they speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. This brings to mind the telecasts during which Donna Brothers, on horseback, impressively interviews the winning rider, jogging back with the outrider. Her questions are always insightful. But the answers from an excited, out-of-breath, rider with a poor command of the English language are usually not illuminating. But it is good theater, good TV.

Just for fun, here's one person's seat-of-the-pants critique of the post-race evaluation technique of some of the all-time great riders—active and inactive:

Among jockey colonies through the years, the dean of charmingly enlightening post-race analyses was surely Craig Perret, a great jockey and horseman. In his enthusiastic, Cajun delivery ("When I axed him the question..."), he would hold nothing back. As someone said, "He would follow you to the parking lot, telling you about the race." And it was tactful, thorough, and useful.

Jerry Bailey. As his impressive TV personality would indicate, upon dismounting, he briskly got right to the point, hit you with a frank, easily-understood, 30-second critique of the performance, and left you with a palatable outlook for the future. And then strode away. Very professional.

Jacinto Vasquez. Not what you would call a "touchy feely" team player. His overwhelming praise of a horse still would have been quite subdued; and he did not sugarcoat mediocrity. Did not get to the big time on charm, or fancy linguistic footwork. When once I asked him about the potential of a horse, he replied, "You don't want to know!" I did, but I didn't.

Calvin Borel. Likeable, but whatever he said was going to be the least he could get by with. Extremely anxious to avoid, or, at least temper, bad news, and sought to leave you in a positive aura, accomplished with lots of nervous nodding and affirming, but unintelligible, utterances, and a sweet smile. Spot-on evaluation if you could get it out of him.

Lester Piggott. The incredibly wonderful, but imperious English rider, had a bad case of the mumbles and was deaf on top of it. He used them both to his advantage. Unless you were one of the elite of the English racing scene, he was unlikely to allocate much time for discussing the race. His persona would cause you to be disinclined to pursue it. If he elected to ride the horse back, then you could get excited.

Javier Castellano. Gets the award for the most earnest. Seems prepared, thoughtful and eager to give you his evaluation. With a concerned look in his eye, he lays it out there in the most positive possible manner. Thanks you for the ride and departs in a cloud of good will.

John Velazquez. Fast talker, high pitch, I don't always get it all. Rarely makes mistakes in a race, but when he does, he is quick to admit it. Always wants to help, and what he says you can take to the bank, but he always wants to leave you with a little blue sky. One of the great citizens of the racing industry.

Kerwin "Boo Boo" Clarke. Made millions of new friends with his unabashed emotion (and skill) demonstrated in winning the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) on Lovely Maria on May 1. Right up to his current 55th year, that man has plied his trade (pretty much under the radar) with class and guts galore. His words with Donna after the race—in which he was overcome with emotion—were unforgettable. In a few minutes on that horse—riding and then talking—he validated a fine, but undervalued, career. One of the highlights of racing's biggest weekend.

Riding racehorses is a particularly exhausting way to make a living. Consider the fact that jockeys must maintain their weight, rise at dawn to work horses and visit all the productive barns, then go through an exceedingly rigorous mental and physical routine each afternoon, and—if you are in demand—travel at ungodly hours.

I appreciate them, and fully understand any communication foibles.

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