Haskin's Derby Trail: Riders on the Storm

This year’s Kentucky Derby contenders are so evenly matched, there is a good possibility the winner will be determined by who gets the best trip and/or the best ride.

It is imperative that the jockeys, especially the ones riding the major players, are on their game, because with so little separating these horses, even a minor lapse in judgment could mean the difference between victory and defeat. They must take advantage of every opportunity presented them and avoid mistakes that could cost them the race.

The Derby often is won by the horse who finds the right hole or holes and gets there first. Many believe Sea Hero and Grindstone would not have won the Derby had Jerry Bailey not taken advantage of every opening and steered them through as if it was the Red Sea parting. Many believe the 1986 Derby result would have been different had Bill Shoemaker, on Ferdinand, not beaten Pat Day, on Rampage, to a hole at the head of the stretch. And how important was Calvin Borel and his daredevil, rail-skimming rides aboard Street Sense and Mine That Bird?

In 2000, Aptitude had a clear path on the rail going into the first turn, but Alex Solis decided he didn’t want to risk getting pinned down in there and moved Aptitude out, which would seem to be the smart move. Kent Desormeaux, however, saw the vacated area and decided to take advantage of it with Fusaichi Pegasus, even though he might very well have been putting his colt in harms way if the inside became congested. As it turned out, the entire field moved well off the rail down the backstretch, leaving a gaping hole for Fusaichi Pegasus to have an easy, unimpeded run. That might very well have been the difference in the outcome, as Fusaichi Pegasus got first run and defeated Aptitude by 1 ½ lengths.

You have to believe Gary Stevens and Stewart Elliott contributed to the victories of Silver Charm and Smarty Jones, respectively, by becoming aggressive early when the going got tight and getting their horses into the clear before it was too late.

We’re mentioning all this because there are several issues regarding this year’s Derby that need to be addressed. Having all the respect in the world for jockeys, these observations and suggestions are only being mentioned in the hope that all the horses in the field, especially the leading contenders, are given every chance to win.

For the longest time, we’ve been talking about the use of the whip on Creative Cause, a horse who in his first three career victories never felt the whip once. But this year, Joel Rosario has gone to the whip in every race, and each time, Creative Cause reacted to it by shying from it and failing to keep a straight course.

In the Santa Anita Derby, Creative Cause, racing without blinkers for the first time and down on the inside, some five lengths off the pace, made a big move on the far turn, and pulled just ahead of I’ll Have Another, who was moving with him on the outside. As they turned for home, Creative Cause cut the corner beautifully and put several paths between him and I’ll Have Another, as they both bore down on the front-running longshot Blueskiesnrainbows. But nearing the three-sixteenths pole, Rosario hit Creative Cause with a left-handed whip and the colt again shied from it, drifting out several horse paths and winding up right alongside I’ll Have Another. He then drifted back in toward Blueskiesnrainbows and only then got back on a straight course. Rosario put the whip away, but who knows how much that loss of momentum cost him? Rosario hand-rode him the rest of the way, just waving the whip at him, but by then, I’ll Have Another had gained a narrow advantage. Creative Cause, now back in sync and running straight, battled back gamely, but missed by a nose.

We’re apprehensive about the Derby, where the temptation to go to the whip is so strong. Even in Creative Cause’s only victory this year in the San Felipe, Rosario went to the whip, and as a result it wasn’t what you’d call a pretty win, as he was all over the track. We’d like to have seen just once what would have happened had Creative Cause been given a chance to show what he could do on his own, with no whip encouragement. Now, we just have to wait until the Derby to see what Rosario does.

We’re a big fan of Rosario’s and believe he’s one of the most gifted riders in the country. He rode Creative Cause perfectly in the Norfolk Stakes and we’d like to see the colt be allowed to run the way he did in that race.

Some tips for other Derby riders

These tips are merely based on observation and opinion and are not meant to sound instructional or highbrowed in any way. They are intended as a light approach to this year’s Derby jockeys.

To Julien Leparoux on Union Rags: It is very possible you are on the most gifted 3-year-old in the country, a versatile colt who is dangerous anywhere on the racetrack. Whether he has a clear run outside horses or is down on the inside in traffic he can handle anything if given even the smallest opening. Not many young horses can do what he did in the Champagne Stakes. This horse has a quick-fire move on the far turn, as he demonstrated in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Fountain of Youth. Many Kentucky Derbys are won with that kind of move and he has to be allowed to make it without fear of moving too soon. He’s talented and tough enough that he can be aggressively ridden when the opportunity occurs. Leparoux is known for his patience, which is necessary in Europe. While patience is important in the Kentucky Derby, when the time is right to move, whether it be at the three-eighths pole or half-mile pole, it is important to pull the trigger. Not only does it allow the horse to build momentum and reach contention before the tired horses start backing up into his face, it gives him more time to extricate himself out of any traffic problems he may encounter.

To Javier Castellano on Gemologist: No rider in history has been on and off more top Derby candidates in one year. Whether by choice or circumstance, you’ve been on Union Rags, off Union Rags; on Algorithms, off Algorithms; on El Padrino, off El Padrino; and finally have landed on another of the leading contenders, Gemologist, who you’ve ridden in his last four starts. Regardless of what happens in the Derby, consider yourself incredibly fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to ride so many top-class horses. There is a reason why you’ve been given this opportunity. You’re one of the most reliable jockeys in the country and you give your horses every chance to win. Remember that when the race unfolds. Oh, and one other thing: remember not to let Gemologist start goofing off in the stretch if he gets the lead. Remind him to keep those ears pinned back until the wire.

To Ramon Dominguez on Hansen or Alpha: Not to put any pressure on you, but if Hansen wins the Blue Grass Stakes, you’ve got one tough decision to make. It would be awfully hard to take off the champ, but you’re well aware that Alpha is a natural mile and a quarter horse who should improve off the Wood Memorial after a two-month layoff and encountering his share of trouble. On the other hand, Hansen has potential greatness in him. An impressive victory by White Lightning at Keeneland will have him all the rage at Churchill Downs. Good luck.

To Mario Gutierrez on I’ll Have Another: It takes a lot of chutzpah (you’ll have to ask someone what that means) to leave Hastings Racecourse and come to Santa Anita without an agent and then hiring 85-year-old Ivan Puhich. Despite your apparent talents, be thankful that an owner like Paul Reddam spotted your skills and went way out of the box and put you up on his big Derby horse. That’s the ultimate in having faith in someone. What makes this all the more humorous is the time you worked I’ll Have Another so Doug O’Neill could see how you got along with him, and after the work telling your agent, “That’s a really good horse; there’s no way they’re gonna let us ride him.” Reddam refers to you as “The real Cinderella story.” He admires your confidence, your natural ability, and the fact that the day before the Santa Anita Derby you watched tapes of all nine horses in the race on your own. So, you don’t need me to tell you not to get rattled by the Kentucky Derby experience and to keep your cool through “My Old Kentucky Home,” the loading and frantic start, and the run into the first turn. After that, it’s just another horse race.

To Calvin Borel on Take Charge Indy or less likely Najjaar: I have one piece of advice for you. Don’t change a thing. Do just what you did in 2007, 2009, and 2010. Four Kentucky Derby wins in six years for four different trainers and four different owners? It’s a rail, I mean real, possibility.

To John Velazquez on Went the Day Well: That “V” on the Team Valor silks is starting to take on a different meaning. You look good in green.

To Rosie Napravnick on Mark Valeski: You got your initial goosebumps experience out of the way last year, so this should be a piece of cake, right? Yeah, sure. There isn’t much more you can do for this colt other than make sure his shoes are on securely. Most of the pre-Louisiana Derby hype is gone, and the big efforts by the leading contenders have sort of pushed him to the background, which is right where you want to be. The best thing you can hear after the Derby is, “Geez, I forgot all about him.”

To every other rider except Rafael Bejarano, who will be on one of Bob Baffert’s horses: Why isn’t your agent beating down Steve Asmussen’s door to get the mount on Daddy Nose Best? This is a live horse who is worth groveling for.

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