New faces change dynamics among SoCal jockeys

Dec 24, 2007 5:28 AM

"In any given group, the most will do the least and the least the most."—Merle P. Martin in "The Instant Analyst," 1975.

That philosophy could apply dramatically to the jockey colony that will ply its trade at Santa Anita during the 85-day meet that starts tomorrow and concludes April 20.

The majority of riders will be clawing for scraps, like vultures after predators at the top of the food chain have satiated their appetites on the carcass of their choice.

Mainstays such as Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani and Alex Solis, who have combined to capture 39 riding titles between them, must fend off an alpha male and three hungry disciples, namely Patrick Valenzuela, Garrett Gomez, Rafael Bejarano and Julien Leparoux. That quartet made such an impact at the recent Hollywood Park meet, Gomez leading the pack with 35. Espinoza, Nakatani and Solis won only 20 races between them from a combined 298 mounts, a shade under seven percent.

Those numbers do not necessarily represent a decline in their riding skills, but they graphically reflect how the fabric of Southern California’s jockey colony has changed with the influx of Gomez, Bejarano and Leparoux, and the return after a year’s absence of 45-year-old Valenzuela.

Include wunderkind Joe Talamo, 20-year-old overnight sensation Michael Baze and his resurgent second cousin, 25-year-old Tyler Baze, and there is substantial evidence that youth will be served.

"This definitely is a colony with the most amazing young talent we’ve had here at one time on a regular basis in the last 10 years," said Ron Ebanks, an agent since 1988 who represents Tyler Baze and who brought the soon-to-be 18-year-old Talamo to the big dance before being unceremoniously and abruptly dismissed for agent Scott McClellan last week.

"The solicitation of how we get mounts has changed because of the presence of Gomez, Bejarano and Leparoux," Ebanks said. "They are three highly recognized riders nationally ranked among the top 10, so all of a sudden the mix has changed and the choice of mounts has changed.

"That makes my job twice as hard as it was before. Santa Anita will be twice as tough as Oak Tree was. It will be tough on everybody, from the top down, but I’d hate to be in the middle to the bottom of the stack."

Charles Dickens said, "We must scrunch or be scrunched," but Tom Knust welcomes the competition.

"It’s good for California racing that there are a lot of good riders here," said Valenzuela’s agent. "The more competitive it is, the better. Patrick is riding very well right now and he’s very optimistic. We’ve got quite a bit of business and we’re looking for a strong meet."

Trainers, understandably, welcome the windfall.

"It’s great to have all these options," said Dan Hendricks, "and it will be very competitive. I don’t know if we’ll ever duplicate the years when we had Shoemaker, Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye and others who are in the Hall of Fame, but this is a great colony. I think six or eight are capable of being leading rider. It’s a matter of who is in the most hot barns. That will dictate who wins the title."

"What makes the colony so deep is the young riders who are progressing so well," said trainer David Bernstein, an unabashed Valenzuela fan. "Nobody heard of young riders like Talamo and some of the others two or three years ago, and now they’re among the leaders. When a rider like Espinoza is having a tough time winning races, it shows you how deep the colony is.

"Toss in Bejarano and Leparoux and how tough is it going to be? But to me, the biggest plus is that Patrick’s back. He adds another dimension that we didn’t have for a while. The way he rides, he’s changed racing already. It doesn’t take him long to come back and establish himself. He’s a force to be reckoned with and he’ll be like that till he’s 70."

OK, so that’s a stretch, but the fact is, they’ll all be aiming at Gomez, the nation’s leader in purse earnings the last two years with more than $25 million and a cinch to win this year’s Eclipse Award as outstanding rider. "We’re ready for the fight," said his agent, Ron Anderson, attempting to sound concerned behind a cavalier facade.

The homestretch

”¡ Jerry Hollendorfer has 32 horses in Southern California for the Santa Anita meet. The 58-year-old Northern California training icon became the fourth trainer to reach 5,000 career wins when Political high won the last race at Hollywood on closing day. He trails Dale Baird (9,445), Jack Van Berg (6,378) and King Leatherbury (6,227).

”¡ Wishing Dick Vitale nothing but the best as he recovers from benign throat polyps, but isn’t God trying to tell him something?

”¡ This quote from G. K. Chesterton in 1908 applies to baseball’s current steroid scandal: "There are only two ways of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating."