Meet Aaron Gryder, All-American boy.
If he wasn’t riding horses like a consummate professional; if he wasn’t dutifully fulfilling his responsibilities as a full-time father and husband; if he wasn’t conducting himself with articulation and discretion, all lofty traits foreign in today’s up yours culture, he’d probably be helping little old ladies cross the street.
Maybe he does that, too. Aaron Gryder is Lawrence Welk in a rock and roll world. He’s a throwback. He speaks in complete sentences. He is involved with numerous charities for children, including the Oscar de la Hoya Foundation. Not that Gryder is square. He’s not. He’s hip. But he is a principled man, and a jockey who continues to compete with skill and aplomb on a world-class level in this, his 23nd year in the saddle.
That’s not easy in his current venue. Vying for quality mounts in Southern California against the likes of alpha jocks like Garrett Gomez, Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario is daunting, certainly a more challenging task than say, Vanna White’s.
"This is a deep jockey colony," said Gryder, currently plying his trade at Santa Anita. "It’s very competitive, but it’s different from the late 80s, because it’s such a young room now. The veterans were so great 20 years ago. Now, the veterans are David Flores, Alex Solis, Garrett Gomez and Mike Smith. A lot of attention has gone to the younger riders, and they’re very talented, and that’s what makes it a very deep room."
Gryder, a native of West Covina, California, who turns 39 on June 5, has eight riding titles, but only one in California, that at Hollywood Park in 1987. His others were won back east, four at Aqueduct in New York, where he rode for nearly two decades until deciding to return to his roots.
"I’ve been in California three years now," Gryder said. "I had ridden back east for 18 years. In the late 80s, before I left Southern California, we had the best jockey colony ever, anywhere: McCarron, Stevens, Pincay, Hawley, Toro, Shoe, McHargue. They were great characters. There was great camaraderie, it was a lot of fun and it really was a lot of respect.
"They were all older, and the way the game used to be, there was a lot more respect in the room than there is now, and the younger riders wanted to learn a lot. An apprentice respected the fact that guys like Shoemaker, McCarron and Stevens would take time to tell them what they did wrong. You don’t see that all the time any more.
"I came back because I was more mature, the timing was right, my kids were growing up and this was a good environment for my family. I had confidence at this point in my career that I was going to make it and do as well here as I could any place else."
Gryder, who has won more than 3,200 races in a career dating back to 1986, wanted to be a jockey since he was in kindergarten. His father, Dale, taped races for him to watch. Tragically, he was killed in an auto accident in 1987. Gryder’s most cherished win came a day after his father’s death, aboard Tom’s Sweetie at Oak Tree.
It was one of life’s sad lessons, but one that put Gryder’s life in perspective. His priorities and foundation are his rocks, and keep him focused on an undeviating path in a society whose values become more crooked and corrupt by the minute.
"I think generations have changed over time, and I don’t think young people respect their elders as they used to," Gryder allowed. "It’s the same in racing. I don’t think young riders try and pattern themselves after some of the greats of the past.
"Everybody has a choice at how they handle things. My wife (Karen) and I have raised our children to show respect and appreciate what they have. My kids (Christian, Michael and Grace Noel) are pretty solid. They’re where I want them to be mentally as far as the way they deal with life and the way they approach things. A lot of what’s changed in the generations is due to the way kids are brought up and the environment they’re in. There’s not that much structure at home. To have good kids, they have to be raised knowing that they’re loved.
"I definitely had the right upbringing. My father died when I was 17 and I left home when I was 13, but I was well advanced in my years as far as maturity went. I worked on a farm but was never around kids that much. I was around adults more, because I’d left school so early. I did have a foundation with my parents. They taught me respect.
"I’ve had a very good career, but I’ve always been a little disappointed I wasn’t able to produce more opportunities. I’m riding good stakes winners now, like Wild Promises for Greg Gilchrist and Well Armed for Eoin Harty, and they’re happy with the results.
"I’m surely not saying I deserve more, because everybody deserves the same. The horses are out there. You just need a way to sell yourself and get on them. I guess I’ve been a little disappointed in myself that I haven’t been able to do that.
"I still have a chance, and a better one now of accomplishing things that I want than I did 15 years ago. I’m in the right spot to do it, even though I don’t ride a lot of top horses for some barns. If I can ride Well Armed for Harty and Wild Promises for Gilchrist and Desert Code for David Hofmans, I have a chance to pick up another good horse. That can lead to anything."
• Three of the top Derby prospects are based in So Cal: Pioneerof the Nile, The Pamplemousse, and I Want Revenge.
• Something’s rotten in Denmark when the Palms Kentucky Derby Future Book has Balfour Park listed at 25-1 and The Pamplemousse at 30-1 when The Pamplemousse, at odds of 1-2, just beat Balfour Park, at 58-1, by 100 lengths (actually 14) in the Sham Stakes. I’ll give you 250,000-1 on Balfour Park getting to the derby!