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Legendary jockeys miss their days in the sun

Nov 11, 2008 4:59 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Appreciation grows deeper with age. Life is relative, and, as it extends, so too does tolerance. As Williams Hazlitt said in 1822, "No young man believes he shall ever die." Noted James Russell Lowell in 1866, "If youth be a defect, it is one that we outgrow only too soon."

That maxim was never in more evidence than it was at Santa Anita on Oct. 18, when a brigade of legendary jockeys gathered for their last roundup before riding off into the sunset amid ballyhoo and bouquets from racing’s cognoscenti. The occasion was the Living Legends Race, in which eight former Hall of Fame riders competed in a pari-mutuel event.

It was a time of remembrance and revival, of gratitude and glee, for here was a collection of such repute it would not come our way again. Rider and fan alike were joined by a oneness of emotion, intermingling with one another.

In the flesh were racing’s stars of yesteryear, ranging in age from 45 to 65, but long ago retired from riding: Laffit Pincay Jr., Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day (all three pictured at right), Jerry Bailey, Eddie Delahoussaye, Sandy Hawley, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, Jacinto Vasquez and Jorge Velasquez.

It was as though a shrine had come to life, and it had, because each is in racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, New York.

Each now is plowing on in other aspects of life, seemingly happy on the outside and healthy on the inside, to varying degrees at least. For one thing, should they choose, they can eat without restriction, although some still tow the caloric line. But each has one common link: they miss riding.

They suffer loss of camaraderie, competition, allegiance and esprit de corps.

"I miss it, oh, yeah, I do," said McCarron, who retired in 2002 and now operates a school for jockeys in Louisville, Kentucky, called the North American Riding Academy. "More than ever, actually. Just the thought of going out there and riding again is very exciting."

Except for the fact that today his hair is whiter, straighter and thinner than it once was, the 53-year-old winner of more than 7,000 races looks like he never stopped riding. In a sense, he wishes he never had.

"You learn to value what you had," McCarron said. "It’s kind of like the song, ‘You Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone.’ But coming back to ride again was fun. It was all good."

Delahoussaye and Pincay at last are resigned to life without riding. Injuries forced them to retire, Delahoussaye in January 2003 from neck and head injuries suffered in a spill at Del Mar on Aug. 30, 2002, and Pincay from fractures in his neck suffered in a spill at Santa Anita on March 1, 2003.

"Doctors said if I fell and hit my head again, I could be walking around like Muhammad Ali, or end up in a wheelchair," Delahoussaye said. "Retiring was the right thing to do. I was disappointed, but I’m a realistic person."

Delahoussaye’s transition was smoother than Pincay’s, whose passion was riding, be it a Kentucky Derby prospect or a $10,000 claimer. After going through toilsome personal adjustments including a divorce, Pincay has set his sights on new horizons and devotes much time to promoting racing charities. Delahoussaye is active as a bloodstock agent, lending his knowledge to those who buy and sell thoroughbreds.

Bailey, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s outstanding jockey, was excited about seeing his peers and riding against them, knowing full well it was a moment to cherish.

"It was bittersweet for me and all of us, really," the 51-year-old icon said. "How many more times do we push the envelope? I’m glad everything went smoothly, because in horse racing, you never know. But the most fun was getting these eight guys together to ride again. You’ll never see it again, I’ll tell you that for sure, because I won’t be involved again. This was my one and only time."

The homestretch

Garrett Gomez became the first rider in Breeders’ Cup history to win more than two races in one day when he won on Albertus Maximus (Dirt Mile), Midshipman (Juvenile) and Midnight Lute (Sprint) on Oct. 25. A day earlier, Gomez won the Filly & Mare Sprint on Ventura. None of the horses was favored. Gomez won the Bill Shoemaker Award as the event’s top jockey.

• Word from the Christophe Clement barn is that the Palomar Handicap winner Vacare is headed for the Dahlia Handicap slated for Hollywood Park on Dec. 21, while Jenny Wiley winner Rutherienne is a candidate for the My Charmer Handicap at Calder Dec. 6.

• John Shirreffs says Horse of the Year contender Zenyatta will enjoy R&R for the remainder of 2008, while Tiago, third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, could surface again before the year is out.

• Corey Nakatani, out with a broken right collar bone from a riding spill since opening day at Oak Tree (Sept. 24), will start getting on horses again next week, agent Ron Ebanks said.