More than meets the eye
in getting a top rider

Feb 13, 2007 1:16 AM

In an ideal world, every trainer would ride Garrett Gomez.

The world being anything but, however, that’s impossible. Thus, the majority of times, horsemen settle for a jockey other than Santa Anita’s runaway leader and the man who should have won the Eclipse Award as the outstanding rider of 2006, based on his record, but enigmatically was dismissed in favor of Edgar Prado.

But I digress.

In the old days, jockeys were employed by stables. They were under contract and would ride exclusively for one trainer. That feudal system has gone the way of short pants and tattoo-free bodies in the NBA, never to be seen again.

Oh, sure, there are riders today who are in favor with certain trainers and give them first call on their services. But essentially, business is business and it’s every man for himself. Almost every jockey has a perspicacious agent who decides which horse he’ll ride. Loyalty is given cursory consideration, because in the end, it all comes down to money.

A trainer might employ a jockey with the talent and demeanor of a Gomez, but without the marquee name. One loss here, another there, and the obscure jockey has been jettisoned.

"Owners will call and ask to have a rider taken off and another put on," said Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally. "They pay the bills; they’re entitled to do that. It’s part of the business."

The intricacies and nuances are profound, and are ensconced deep beneath the primary layer that one-dimensional thinkers envision.

To wit: "Certain jockeys are good with first-time starters and others, even those who are on top right now, you don’t want to use, as a rule, unless the horse is an absolute monster and they have worked the horse before," McAnally said.

"Then there’s a situation where a rider has ridden your horse before and has another horse he rides coming up in the same race, that he feels is better than yours. They’ll try to come up with some off-the-wall excuse not to ride for you.

"Example: we had an entry (on Feb. 2): Soldier and Heza Legend. Tyler Baze had ridden Soldier before. At the last minute, I decided to run him with Heza Legend. Entries were taken and I assumed Tyler would ride him. He didn’t, and the excuse was he had a mount in the race at entry time and didn’t know we were running in the same race. But he knew we were eligible ”¦ I can understand that happening." (Heza Legend, a 3-year-old son of Hennessy, cracked both front sesamoids in the race and had to be euthanized).

The manner in which riders are obtained is infinite.

"There are so many factors involved," McAnally said. "You would like a top rider on your horse all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not possible."

McAnally trained legendary two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, whose health at age 32 is in rapid decline at the Kentucky Horse Park. McAnally, 74, also was on the ground floor in the development of the prototypical stretch runner, Silky Sullivan, who was trained by his uncle, Reggie Cornell, in the 1950s. Understandably, McAnally has enough tales to write a book.

"I was a groom at Santa Anita and in the barn facing us was a little guy mucking out stalls," McAnally remembered. "I said, ”˜What’s he doing mucking out stalls? He should be riding.’ I went in the service for a couple years, came back, and saw all these headlines in the papers about this guy. It was (Bill) Shoemaker. He was under contract to trainer Bill Reeves. In those days, most trainers had riders under contract and they would ride all their horses.

"In the old days, the workers’ compensation was handled by the trainers because the rider was under contract to him. Now we’re still paying comp insurance on the riders, but they should have their own. That’s the reason our insurance is so damn high. But back to the riders.

"Unless a top rider has worked your horse a few times, he shuns you. Agents are sharp enough where they know if a horse can run or not; these days, they got it all on a computer."

The homestretch

”¡ Nice guy Alex Solis, in the throes of a slump so bad it has spurred backstretch rumors of retirement, lost a stakes-winning mount he had ridden in eight straight races when he was taken off Siren Lure for Saturday’s San Carlos Handicap. "The owners wanted to make a change," said trainer Art Sherman, who replaced Solis with Richard Migliore. In last Saturday’s two Grade I races at Santa Anita that had 16 starters, Solis didn’t have a mount.

”¡ Best value on Churchill’s opening Future Book Kentucky Derby odds was 30/1 offered on Great Hunter.

”¡ Good news, bad news: The good, the 76ers defeated Charlotte for their seventh win in 11 games. The bad, a season-low 11,027 (about half of capacity) attended at the Wachovia Center. Incidentally, the 76ers and Flyers have combined to win 31 games, costing me my bet that they wouldn’t win 30. Not to worry: I’ve teased the number up to 40.

”¡ I just have this to say about Anna Nicole Smith: I don’t know if her death was natural, but I’m sure her hair color wasn’t. Shakespeare put it best about her career: "Much ado about nothing."

”¡ I hear O.J. wanted desperately to attend the Super Bowl, but he was too busy looking for the killer of his wife and Ron Goldman.

”¡ This irrelevant and insignificant headline from the Los Angeles Times: "Record Broken for Female Spacewalking." Let’s hope equal play is given when a cure for cancer is found.

”¡ And this reminder to college and pro athletes out there: The important thing is not if you win or lose, but whether you cover the spread.