Ex-jockeys provide valuable messages for horse trainers

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Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Joey Steiner never rode in the Kentucky Derby. The closest he
came was working Silver Charm before he won the Run for the Roses in 1997.

Goncalino Almeida had two mounts in the Derby: Jumron, fourth
in 1995, and Nationalore, ninth in 1998.

Neither was a marquee rider, never gained national
prominence, never had trainers knocking their doors down to get a live mount.
Almeida, a riding champion in his native Brazil and one of racing’s nice guys,
still rides occasionally, but at age 53, keeps the wolf away from the door by
exercising horses. One of his clients is Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.
Almeida rides better horses now than he ever did in nearly 20 years as a jockey
in the United States.

Steiner never had his bio in a media guide. The 44-year-old
Washington state native was Southern California’s leading apprentice rider in
1981-82, but ended his professional career three years ago on the advice of
doctors after a rash of injuries. “If I was 20, I wouldn’t care what the
doctors said,” Steiner said at the time. “But I’m 41, so I’m not
going to leave in a wheelchair.” He now earns his keep working horses,
mainly for future Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

No matter their status, the knowledge exercise riders impart
to trainers is invaluable. It not only can make the difference between winning
and losing, it can prevent serious injury to horse and rider. Steiner and
Almeida, like countless men and women who work horses in the mornings, are
faceless ghosts to the general public, but the game could not go on without
them. Recognition or not, Joe and Gonzo are two of the best at what they do.

“Some guys have a real good knack of working
horses,” said Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner and himself a
former jockey. “Once they get into the trainer’s system, they know what
you’re looking for. That’s very important. Some ex-riders are better in the
morning than they are in the afternoon, probably because there’s no pressure
on them in the morning and their confidence is high, because they don’t have
to worry about making a mistake.

“Steiner has a good way with horses. He gets along with
them, and that’s important, because in the mornings, when horses go out
without a pony, they can be more rambunctious. In the afternoons, they’re with
the pony, and that calms them down.

“I’ve had some really good jockeys I didn’t like
working my horses. A lot of times, they’re fighting weight, they’re light,
and they’re only good for so many mounts in the afternoon, so they don’t
want to over-exert themselves in the mornings.

“I’ll let a jockey get a feel for a horse maybe one
time . . . as they get older and heavier, the ex-riders are not fighting the
weight, so they’re stronger and are a little better at exercising horses. They’re
probably 125, 130 (pounds), so they’re heavier, and that’s important.

“I tried to be a jockey, and when I weighed about 127,
128, I felt like I was a better rider. When I tried to get down to 118, I was
real weak. Once a jockey quits riding and reaches a comfortable weight, it makes
a big difference.

“Gary Stevens and Chris McCarron were great working
horses in the mornings, just as good in the mornings as they were in the
afternoons. It’s very rare you find that.”

It’s also rare to find a knowledgeable exercise rider in a
soup line.

“I think the guys who work their butts off make around
$3,500, $4,000 a month,” Steiner said. “Guys who gallop horses get $15
a head, and they can get on 10, 12, 15 a day. Guys who work hard, they earn
their living, and they can do it seven days a week.

“But it’s tough. Every horse you ride, you take a
chance. But there are guys who make a good living year after year. Doing what I’m
doing now makes my day. I enjoy the morning workouts and the atmosphere, and I
probably weigh 10 pounds more than I used to, at 127, and I don’t have to
worry about my weight. I’m going to start stewards’ school soon, although I’m
not sure if I want to become one.”

Stevens, now an actor and analyst for HRTV and NBC, gave
Almeida and Steiner an unqualified endorsement.

“They may not be marquee names as riders, but they are
very good horsemen with great opinions,” said Stevens, who still works
horses himself, primarily for trainer Patrick Biancone. “Their information
is the best you can get. They’ve ridden races and know when a horse is doing
good and when it’s doing poorly.

“There’s not as much pressure in the morning on an
exercise person, but as a rider, I put as much pressure on myself in the
mornings to gather all the information I can so I tell the trainer something
important when I come back.”

The homestretch

• As noted last week, the following 3-year-olds have
suffered setbacks and are losing critical training time, thus have little or no
chance of making the Kentucky Derby on May 2, yet they are still being offered
in some Future Book venues. Save your money on Point Encounter, Charitable Man,
Believe in Hope and Majormotionpicture.

• Martin Pedroza, who suffered a broken pelvis in a post
parade mishap in the ninth race on Jan. 11, is undergoing physical therapy twice
a day at Arcadia Methodist Hospital’s rehab center. “He’ll be there two
more weeks,” said his agent, Richie Silverstein. “After that, it’s
up to nature.”

• Corey Nakatani and his wife, Lisa, are proud parents of a
seven-pound, one ounce baby girl, Lilah Marie, born Jan. 22. At the same time,
Nakatani’s mother, Marie, was being treated for an accelerated heart rate.
“Thankfully,” Nakatani said, “it’s been stabilized.”

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