HOT SPRINGS — A flimsy but convenient excuse for poor handicapping, blaming the jockey is even more suspect now that Victor, E.T., Eddie, and Rosemary are riding at Oaklawn Park.
The addition of Lebron, Baird, Martin, and Homeister, the return of Calvin Borel and Robby Albarado, and a solid core of regulars give this jockey colony more depth and quality than I can remember and I was making the trek from Little Rock to Hot Springs when youngsters watched from behind the backstretch fence because the minimum age was 16.
In years past, those of us who believed we could decipher a winner from the past performances of thoroughbreds would often throw down a losing ticket and call the "no-riding weasel" responsible by name. Not this year.
Looking over the 30-something jockeys at Oaklawn, I wondered how a late and dear friend would have separated them. A pressbox regular on Saturday, sportscaster Jim Elder would open his briefcase, fish out a notebook, and proclaim the "fill-in" jock of the week.
He believed the best riders won their share and that if one of the guys on his list had been blanked during the week, he was due to win. Many times, he cashed a ticket pursuing that theory.
With this group of riders, I’m not sure he could zero in on five or six. In fact, a jock with 2,000 or 3,000 wins may go more than a week without getting to the finish line first at Oaklawn. That’s not to say they will be mistake-free – even Tom Brady has thrown eight interceptions this year. And, like golfers, jockeys go through streaks, both good and bad. Sometimes, the hole opens along the rail and sometimes a tiring horse stops right in front of one on the move.
The regulars are solid and may be under-rated by fans who judge jocks by their success in Triple Crown races.
Guys like Cliff Berry, Terry Thompson, Alex Birzer, and Jon Court — 1-2-3-6 in the Oaklawn standings a year ago — are often dismissed as journeymen, but they have won almost 13,000 races between them and racked up numerous riding titles.
The return of one-time regulars Borel and Albarado raised the national profile of the group. Both have won Breeders’ Cup races and Triple Crown races, including Borel back-to-back in the Kentucky Derby. Sidelined for a couple of weeks with a bad wrist, Borel’s next victory will be No. 5,000. Albarado wasted no time getting to the winner’s circle, riding the favorite Congenial in the first race.
But the newcomers set this group apart.
Fresh faces are nothing new. Last year, Alex Cintron rode at Oaklawn for the first time and finished in the top 10. From there, he went to Delaware and was second in the standings.
Check out the aforementioned quartet:
—Baird, more than 2,200 winners, riding titles in the Chicago area.
—Martin, more than 3,500 winners, riding titles in Louisiana tracks and Texas.
—Lebron, more than 1,300 winners, and riding titles in Indiana and Kentucky and he only started riding regularly in 2006.
—Homeister, more than 2,500 winners, riding titles in Florida.
Homeister arrived in Hot Springs almost a month ago to introduce herself to prospective employers, but several of the new riders are in town because of connections to trainers who have not raced regularly at Oaklawn in years past.
The purse structure is a big draw.
For example, maidens are running for $53,000, the kind of money that will attract trainers who believe they have a horse with a future. On Friday, a maiden race in New Orleans had a $45,000 purse.
The winning connections get 60 percent and 10 percent of that goes to the jockey. At the Fairgrounds, that’s $2,700; at Oaklawn, it’s $3,180. Not too long ago, $3,180 was a decent week for some jocks.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.