Jockeys have been making a difference on horseback since Paul Revere rode through Lexington and Concord in 1775 to warn the citizenry that the British were coming. How much nuance a jockey makes on a horse in a race today is a matter of opinion.
A generation ago, horse owners and trainers ruled a fiefdom, whereby riders were beholden to them to gain mounts. If a jock wanted to ride a horse in a race, he would have to work that animal in the morning. That held true even for yesteryear’s stars, such as Arcaro, Hartack and Shoemaker.
As 2009 approaches, the tradition largely remains in effect. World-class riders like Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano, pro tem leaders in Southern California, are at the top of the food chain but still pay their dues most mornings by working horses they hope to ride to victory in the afternoon. It is a long-standing custom that also draws in jockeydom’s lowest echelon.
Loyalty in racing is a rarity, like finding shaving cream in the medicine chest of Osama bin Laden. Life is not fair, and just because a jockey answers the call at daybreak doesn’t mean he will get the call come race time.
All manner of reasons, logical and illogical, enter the equation.
"If a rider fits the horse and they’ve done well together, you leave him on," said Bill Spawr, one of California’s most successful trainers who has been giving riders a leg up for more than three decades. "We’ve had house guys like Laffit (Pincay Jr., pictured above with Angel Cordero and Pat Day) and (Richard) Migliore who worked our horses in the morning, and when another rider took off one of our horses or it got beat, they would have the opportunity to inherit the mount."
Owners pay the bills, so despite a trainer’s allegiance to a lesser-known rider, he might have to acquiesce if the boss wants the leader of the pack and he’s available.
"The owners have a lot of input, too, but if a horse and rider match up well together, you keep him on," said Spawr, who turns 69 on Dec. 13. "I try to be loyal, but sometimes the owners do step in."
Former rodeo rider Darrell Vienna is an exception who in recent years has given David Flores and Martin Pedroza most of the stable’s prime mounts, despite their lack of marquee status.
"I don’t think which jockey you use makes any difference other than when you ride a few riders a lot," Vienna said. "Then, when they’re deciding who to ride, you might get a little more consideration. If it’s between an outfit they don’t ride much for and someone they do, they’d probably give an edge to the person they ride more for.
"My owners have input, but they’re happy with Flores and Pedroza. Usually the horse is the difference in winning or losing, but there are times when the rider is important. Maybe a horse needs special handling, or maybe it’s not the best in ability, but the rider puts him in the right spot and everything clicks. But I don’t think it’s a clear-cut issue."
The 62-year-old Vienna, a former practicing lawyer with a psychology degree from UCLA, has seen a Who’s Who of Hall of Fame riders in a career spanning more than 30 years, but his answer raised eyebrows when asked to name No. 1.
"Patrick Valenzuela was probably as talented a rider ever, probably better than any of them, when he was right," Vienna said, adding, "but who knows when he was right?"
A-List barns with infinite wealth like the Godolphin Racing Stable of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum can be selective in choosing a rider, but for the most part, common sense prevails, says 50-year-old Rick Mettee, who directs operations for Godolphin’s U.S.-based contingent.
"The last few years for Godolphin in New York we’ve used no more than a dozen to 15 different riders," Mettee said. "We like to keep a continuity with the riders. (Jean-Luc) Samyn rode Formal Decree for the third time in the Citation (Handicap at Hollywood Park, in which he finished second). We don’t like switching riders all the time, because in theory, most of our horses run in good races and we’d rather not make changes in stakes races.
"I guess we’re spoiled in New York and California. I don’t think a rider has as big an effect as it could at a smaller track where there might be a big difference between the leading rider and the seventh or eighth-leading rider. In Southern California, the 10th-leading rider is probably a really good rider. Still, it’s hard to get the same guy all the time, even for an outfit like Godolphin.
"So as I said, we like to keep a continuity, and when you do that, it’s hard to use just one or two riders. We tend to use everybody we can and spread it around. On the other hand, (Ramon) Dominguez has ridden Cocoa Beach in all her starts this year, and he just won the Matriarch on her, so it depends on what you want.
"Agents are always calling us trying to get their jocks on our horses. Still, it’s not easy for us to get a Gomez or a Bejarano, the No. 1 or No. 2 every single time, especially if you know you might lose them for the next race. That’s why we use a rider like a Samyn. You know he is going to stick with the horse every time."
Mettee ranks retired Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. among the best he has seen.
"A guy like Cordero in his prime might have made a difference between winning or losing," Mettee said. "He’s someone you put on a horse every time and I wouldn’t have had any problem with that. He could win with some horses others couldn’t win with.
"I got to California in 1981. Laffit dominated in the 1970s. He was really strong, and the jocks’ colony had McHargue, Shoemaker, McCarron and Hawley and guys like that, so Laffit was as good as any, but really, it’s hard to say.
"Angel could ride almost any kind of horse. He won big races and also had the ability to literally ride two horses in a race better than anybody else."
Add News You Can Bet On: In our column on John Sadler last week, we wrote: "Sadler does have high hopes for some of his imports." One of them, a 4-year-old New Zealand-bred filly named Belmont Cat, won impressively in her first U.S. start last Wednesday after a seven-month layoff and paid $5.80 under a confident ride by Mike Smith.
• Lookalikes: Barney Frank and Lou Costello.
• An ESPN analyst said courageous bone cancer survivor Wayman Tisdale had "a leg amputated from above the knee down." Try as I might, I can’t picture it being amputated from above the knee up.