Breeders' Cup heightens rivalry for Oak Tree riders

Sep 2, 2008 6:49 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | The Oak Tree Racing Association needs another top jockey at its Breeders’ Cup meet like Fox News needs another blonde anchor woman. The 26-day session highlighted by the 25th Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Oct. 24 and 25 will offer no gimmes, even for the usual suspects.

Recent Oak Tree riding champions like Tyler Baze, Corey Nakatani and Garrett Gomez will have to contend with relative newcomers Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario, in addition to world-class invaders who could make their presence felt thanks to an infusion of horses brought in by trainers seeking Breeders’ Cup gold and glory during the meet that begins Sept. 26.

"Four jockeys are in fashion right now," said Richie Silverstein, one of racing’s most perceptive agents who has represented jockey Martin Pedroza for the better part of 22 years. "They are Bejarano, Gomez, Tyler Baze and Rosario. Any one of them, along with Victor Espinoza, could jump up and win the title. Visiting horsemen not only will be bringing their Breeders’ Cup horses for Oak Tree, but also their riders from out of town. This will dilute potential winners for the regulars. Riders like (Julien) Leparoux, (Kent) Desormeaux or Alan Garcia could come in at any given time.

"I think this will be one of the more competitive Oak Tree meets ever due to the timing of the Breeders’ Cup. A lot will depend on how early stables arrive for the Breeders’ Cup and if they bring their regular riders in to work the horses. Plus, there are a lot of parties and social activities before the Breeders’ Cup."

As for Silverstein, the 49-year-old California native has managed to keep the wolf away from the door during his 28 years as an agent, although the 43-year-old Pedroza has not become a household word nationally. No one has ever questioned his dedication or work ethic, however, during a career of more than 25 years that had him one shy the 3,000 victory milestone through Aug. 31.

Pedroza, a native of Panama, won his 10th consecutive riding title in 2007 at Fairplex Park, where he is the career leader with 492 victories. Among his consistently supportive trainers are Jack Carava and Julio Canani. Silverstein says it helps if a rider has support from major barns like that.

"Clinton Potts rides for (Jeff) Mullins, (Aaron) Gryder rides for (Brian) Koriner and (Jose) Valdivia rides for (Ron) Ellis," Silverstein pointed out. "Those riders go with their customers and if they do well, the riders do, too. If not, they struggle. Same with me. I ride for Julio, Carava, Darrell Vienna and Peter Miller or I’d be in the doghouse."

Skill and networking are but two essentials for a successful agent. A thick skin helps, because rejection is part of the daily regimen, loyalty be damned.

"You’d be surprised, though," Silverstein said, "because loyalty counts much more now than in the past. Before, a jockey would try to ride the best horses and hope to get lucky and get a little momentum. Only a few riders could do that, like Desormeaux did, and Nakatani did and Gary Stevens did. Right now, Bejarano and Rosario are the sought-after riders. At Del Mar this meet, even Tyler Baze, Gomez and Espinoza have had to earn it."

All this is said without Patrick Valenzuela thrown into the equation. The oft-suspended 45-year-old jockey has been riding in Louisiana, because his conditional California license remains void due to his most recent violation.

"I’m sure if he came back, he’d ride a few horses, but at his age and with small fields, he’d have a rough go," Silverstein said. "There were six and seven horse fields during the end of the Del Mar meet and probably Bejarano, Gomez, Baze and Rosario had mounts in every one of those races. That left 24 jockeys trying to ride the other two horses."

Silverstein plays second fiddle well, but says it not so much frustrating as it is boring, especially in today’s space age.

"Before cell phones, the guy who got up earliest and shook the most hands had a real chance to advance," he said. "Now with cell phones, an agent can sit at home, sit in his car, or go to Vegas for the weekend and still be as effective, if not more so, if he’s got the rider people want. A guy like Joe Ferrer (agent for Bejarano) can work from anywhere, even from back east.

"So it can get boring. In the old days, it would be like planting a crop. You’d plow the field by asking trainers about specific horses; you’d fertilize by giving a spiel on how your jockey was doing and try to work the horses, and some of them would sprout and grow and you would get lucky. But now, there are no gardens, and the lack of opportunity is what’s frustrating. It’s not the money or the amount of riders, but the state of the game in California.

"Not getting slots hurts, and I think horses racing without steroids is going to take them five or six weeks to bounce back off their races, instead of one or two, especially for the older geldings. The backbone of racing in California for years has been the low-priced claimers, and those horses won’t be able to run every other week, I don’t care who trains them. It’s going to lessen the opportunities, and that’s what’s frustrating.

"Now California has no Bay Meadows, and we could lose Hollywood Park. When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I said there would always be a football team (in the NFL). For the time being, I’m wrong. I can’t imagine no Bay Meadows and I can’t imagine no Hollywood Park. But it looks like that’s the road we’re on."

The homestretch

Despite laboring to beat a bunch of tomato cans at equal weights in the Woodward, inexplicably there remains a cordon of veteran race trackers who say Curlin deserves Horse of the Year honors over Big Brown. On paper, it doesn’t wash.

• Doug O’Neill said Slew’s Royalty, impressive winner of the El Cajon Stakes, is a candidate for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on Oct. 25.

• John Shirreffs reports Tiago has recovered from a foot problem that forced him to miss the Pacific Classic and is aiming for the Goodwood Stakes at Oak Tree on Sept. 27 as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Shirreffs’ unbeaten filly Zenyatta is ticketed for the Lady’s Secret on Sept. 27 and the Ladies Classic on Oct. 24.

• Early reports on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface are encouraging.

• In the Phillies’ remarkable 8-7 victory in 13 innings over the Mets on Aug. 19 in which they overcame a 7-0 deficit, they had 19 hits, struck out 16 times and left 18 men on base. Too bad mis-manager Charlie Manuel didn’t stay with ace pitcher Cole Hamels for the eighth inning last Thursday against the Cubs.

Hamels threw 108 pitches through seven innings and had a 4-1 lead, but instead of leaving him in for the eighth and then giving the ball to closer Brad (The Lid) Lidge, perfect in 33 chances this year, Manuel went to his shaky setup staff. Thanks to walks and a grand slam, the Phils blew the game, 6-4.

• Imagine how much faster swimming sensation Michael Phelps could have gone if he didn’t have drag on his ears.