01/10/2013 3:03PM

Brad Free: Goldencents, Krigger could be this year's version of I'll Have Another, Gutierrez

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Jockey Kevin Krigger hopes that the Doug O'Neill-trained Goldencents can take him to the Kentucky Derby.

Jockey Kevin Krigger could have stayed in Northern California and ridden a lot more winners than he rode the past year in Southern California. None of those Golden Gate winners would have put the 29-year-old rider on a trail to the Kentucky Derby.

It took Krigger less than one year in Southern California to find a dream mount – four rides on Goldencents produced three wins, including last weekend’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. If Goldencents makes it, Krigger will try to win the Kentucky Derby with his first Derby mount.

“When you get a Derby mount for the first time, you have to capitalize every moment, because you don’t know when the next time is coming,” Krigger said this week at Santa Anita, where he was busy working horses for Goldencents’s trainer Doug O’Neill.

It is habit for Krigger – showing up early and working hard.

“He’s here every morning at 5:30,” O’Neill said. “There are a lot of riders here with a good work ethic. Kevin’s is as good as any.”

Work ethic is how Krigger got the mount on Goldencents in the first place. He showed up one morning last summer to work an unraced 2-year-old for O’Neill and was thrilled.

“This might be one of the best horses I’ve been on,” Krigger said.

O’Neill also liked the chemistry he saw between Krigger and Goldencents.

“He was a kid with talent who got along with a really good horse,” O’Neill said and suggested Krigger and agent Tom Knust contact the majority owner to express interesting in riding the colt first out.

Goldencents was not the first highly regarded horse O’Neill considered for a low-profile rider. Months earlier, he gave Mario Gutierrez the mount on I’ll Have Another, whose four consecutive wins included the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

“Clients need to be comfortable and confident enough in the horse that they don’t need a guy at the top of the standings,” O’Neill explained. “You don’t get a lot of horse owners willing to give a guy a chance.”

Goldencents is owned by W.C. Racing (Glenn Sorgenstein and Joshua Kaplan), David Kenney, and University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. They gave Krigger a chance. Besides, the jockey was already making inroads in Southern California, where he had been riding full time since the start of the year.

Krigger cracked the top 10 at Santa Anita and Betfair Hollywood Park. He was eager and loyal, appealing traits to O’Neill.

“I love to see a hungry rider who gets along good with a horse, and just knowing there’s going to be continuity with that horse, and not having to worry he’s going to jump ship,” O’Neill said.

Krigger guided Goldencents to a debut romp Sept. 2 at Del Mar, a runner-up finish to Shanghai Bobby in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park, and a wire-to-wire win in the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot, followed by the Sham.

He will not jump ship. Prior to Goldencents, Krigger had won only two graded stakes, a pair of Grade 3’s on turf at Golden Gate Fields. It was easy to see why he relocated to Southern California.

“This is the top circuit. You find better horses and the majority of the riders are better riders. And here, every two minutes, you bump into a Hall of Fame trainer. Up north, who do you have for a Hall of Famer? Jerry and Russell,” Krigger said, referring to Hollendorfer and Baze. It’s a short list.

“By coming down here, I give away a few more winners, but I make a few more bucks,” he said. “We all want to win, but at the end of the day, we all think about the paycheck.”

Based in Northern California in 2011, Krigger won 165 races; his mounts earned $2.8 million. In 2012 based in Southern California, Krigger won just 73 races, but his mounts earned more than $3.6 million, including $600,000 in the Delta Downs Jackpot.

Business slowed the second half of 2012. Krigger won only four races during the Santa Anita autumn meet, and only three at Hollywood. This winter, things are looking up. He rode four winners from his first 19 mounts as parallels emerge between Goldencents and I’ll Have Another.

Both colts were relatively inexpensive. I’ll Have another was purchased for $35,000; Goldencents for just $62,000. Both began their careers in Southern California, both trained by O’Neill, and both matched with low-profile riders.

The impact of Goldencents on Krigger’s career is a developing story.

And while victory in a Triple Crown race would help establish Krigger on the national stage, it does not translate to automatic success on the local circuit.

Mario Gutierrez gave I’ll Have Another four flawless rides in 2012.

Since then, Gutierrez has made negligible impact. In the six months following the Preakness, Gutierrez has ridden 208 horses in Southern California and won 16 races (8 percent).

What happened? One theory is obligations at Hastings Racecourse in British Columbia precluded momentum in California. Also, trainers privately said they had difficulty communicating with his former agent. Gutierrez has since changed agents.

Gutierrez became dismissive and aloof, and unreliable to deliver trouble-free rides on a consistent basis. One recent example is O’Neill-trained He’s Had Enough, who has had a series of troubled trips under Gutierrez.

Krigger seems a likelier candidate for success. A native of St. Croix with a thick Virgin Islands accent, he is easy going and affable. His smile is genuine and his humor apparent, such as when he discusses finances – “If you aren’t making money, it’s just about worthless . . . unless we’re doing some exhibition races.”

Krigger, who began riding in 2001, is skilled at getting horses to relax. And, he can finish. While his outward mannerisms seem mellow, pity the jockey who crosses him.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

“He will bark at other riders if he feels he was wronged in a race,” O’Neill said. “He’s classy and yet very competitive. He is very much a fighter.”

As for the horse, could it be the Krigger personality is rubbing off on Goldencents? The colt was surprisingly relaxed in the Sham, rallying from off the pace for the first time. He was so relaxed that turning for home it briefly appeared Goldencents was in trouble.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned,” O’Neill said. “He had to niggle at him to get him back on the bridle, and that was something we haven’t seen yet from Goldencents. It is very important if you’re going to go a mile and a quarter.”

Krigger also was pleased. “It was the first time having to pass horses, and he was a little green. It’s good he had to run that race. It shows guts, it shows stamina.”

O’Neill and owners soon will plot a campaign for Goldencents, including a possibility of just two more starts before Kentucky – the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 18 and Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby on March 24. That idea is only preliminary.

Either way, Krigger looks forward to the learning process that will unfold.

“I have the perfect tool,” he said. “The horse is a young horse and he is still learning. The further we go, the better both of us are going to get.”