Eddie D. says jockeys must stay cool to win Derby

Apr 25, 2006 12:11 AM

Eddie Delahoussaye remembers his first Kentucky Derby, although he’d like to forget it. Anxious as a groom on the first night of his honeymoon, Delahoussaye finished 13th in a field of 15 aboard a 24-1 shot named Honey Mark, who ran in place throughout. Beaten nearly 30 lengths by Foolish Pleasure, Delahoussaye learned a valuable lesson: ride the race like it’s a $10,000 claimer.

It paid off, because Delahoussaye was second in his next Derby, beaten less than a length by Pleasant Colony when he rode 34-1 shot Woodchopper in 1981. The next two years, Delahoussaye became one of only four jockeys to take the race back to back when he won in 1982 on Gato Del Sol and in 1983 aboard Sunny’s Halo.

Retired since January of 2003 after suffering neck and head injuries in a spill at Del Mar on Aug. 30, 2002, Eddie D. has two words of advice to riders competing in the 132nd Run for the Roses on May 6: "stay cool."

That, of course, is easier said than done. The combination of 150,000 fans imbibing on mint juleps and other alcoholic offerings, and the melancholy rendering of "My Old Kentucky Home," can dissolve emotions in even the most callous rider during the post parade.

"Oh, absolutely, it can happen," Delahoussaye said. "Jockeys can get nervous before the Derby because it carries more historical significance than any other race and every jock wants to win it. The roar of the crowd and the playing of ”˜My Old Kentucky Home’ creates pressure riders never experienced and they just lose it. The ones who don’t, hopefully, their horses run good.

"After I rode my first Derby, I made up my mind that the next time it was going to be like an ordinary race. That’s the thought a rider should put in his head before the Derby. Relax and hope your horse runs his race. That way you ride better. You can’t make the moves in the Derby you do in ordinary races if you put pressure on yourself. You think you can, but you can’t. You’ve got to ride it cool, let the horse do the running and stay out of trouble."

Jockeys aren’t the only athletes who crash in the Derby. Horses falter, too, Delahoussaye says. Prominent puzzlers of recent vintage include Holy Bull (12th at 2-1 in 1994), Point Given (fifth at 9-5 in 2001), Empire Maker (second at 5-2 in 2003) and Bellamy Road (seventh at 5-2 last year).

"Horses on top of their game get to the Derby and all of a sudden, they go the other way, because to get there, a horse has to run so hard in the preps," Delahoussaye said. "When the Derby comes along, most horses are just not on top of their game.

"Take a horse like Giacomo last year, or Gato Del Sol when I was riding. They were at their best for the Derby and won. But circumstances prevent what looks like the best horse from winning. Those horses peak too early and are finished when the time comes for their best effort. On Derby day, everything has to work perfect. The best horse doesn’t always win."

That said, who does Eddie D. fancy?

"I guess Lawyer Ron’s the one that’s been the most consistent and running so good," he said. "And he’s been running at Oaklawn and handling that track. Normally, horses that handle Oaklawn do good at Churchill Downs, but who knows if he’s peaking too soon?"

One guy who didn’t reach the apex too soon was Delahoussaye. Noted for his spirited last-to-first finishes on the track as much as he was for his homespun manner off, no rider of his generation was more popular with fans. From his boyhood days in Louisiana where he rode quarter horses at the age of 10 to his induction into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1993, Delahoussaye never lost his sense of values, despite winning 6,384 races and earning nearly $196 million in purse money.

When he won a new Chrysler for capturing the 1992 Belmont Stakes on A.P. Indy, he spurned it and had Chrysler write three checks equal to the value of the vehicle to his favorite charities: the Shoemaker Foundation, the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, and the Jockeys Guild Fund for disabled riders.

Some ex-jocks bask in the afterglow. Delahoussaye prefers to lose himself among the legions. He is visible at the races, but maintains a low profile, earning his keep these days buying and selling horses. In a sense, he’s as outdated as chrome bumpers. But his career gleams with nostalgia.

"I can’t ride again," said Delahoussaye, now 54. "I’ve got a bad hip and my neck still bothers me—there’s no way. Do I miss it in general? Oh, yeah. Anybody’s who’s ridden, they’ll always miss it. It was part of your life.

"Last year I talked with Laffit Pincay and I asked him if he ever thought of coming back to maybe just gallop, and he said, ”˜No, I thought about coming back when I first got hurt, but now it’s out of my system."

But winning the Derby never is. And Eddie D. says you have to stay cool to do it.

THE HOMESTRETCH

”¡ For what it’s worth, Bob Baffert has never been more relaxed than in recent days, now that he has three Derby horses at the ready: Bob and John, Point Determined and Sinister Minister. But getting there wasn’t half the fun. Much of the Santa Anita meet, Baffert seemed encumbered by the pressure of preparing his 3-year-olds for the road to the Derby. But that’s all behind him. "I’ve got a speed horse, a stalker, and one that comes from behind," Baffert said. "I’m covered. I’m going to have a good time."

”¡ Noble Threewitt, whose health has slipped at age 95, became the oldest trainer to win a race at a major North American track when his Threeatonce won at Santa Anita on Saturday. His last winner, Bitingly Cold, came more than three years ago, on Jan. 8, 2003.