05/01/2008 12:00AM

'Changing of the guard' in jockeys' room

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The legends who roamed the Churchill Downs jockeys' room on Kentucky Derby Day are mostly gone, either deceased or retired.

Their replacements are doing their best, but it's quite a task to keep up with the ghosts of Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, and Bill Hartack.

Of the 20 jockeys in this year's Derby, only four have won the race before. The three jockeys who have won the Eclipse Award over the last four years - John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, and Garrett Gomez - have just one Derby triumph among them, with Prado winning two years ago on Barbaro. Jockeys in this year's field who otherwise are highly decorated, such as Robby Albarado and Corey Nakatani, also are winless in the Derby.

The absence of Derby wins among the group is largely a result of recent retirements by icons like Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Pat Day. They won 10 Derbies and more often than not got the pick of every litter, making it exceedingly difficult for younger riders to break in.

"It ends up being where most of those guys retired at pretty much the same time," said Gomez, who last year was voted the Eclipse after breaking the record for most stakes victories in a year with 76. "Guys that have come in after them, they've had minimal chances to win."

Kent Desormeaux, who will ride favored Big Brown, owns the best Derby record among the 2008 jockeys, having won in 1998 on Real Quiet and in 2000 on Fusaichi Pegasus. Although he always has expressed respect bordering on reverence for the great jockeys who came before him, Desormeaux is eager to take up for the new generation.

"It's a changing of the guard," he said. "It's very simple: Those guys are gone. There are pictures on the wall here where they've won two or three Breeders' Cups every year. But hey, they're gone. Out with the old, in with the new."

Asked whether the lack of a strong overall Derby resume among this next wave of riders is an indictment of their abilities, he said: "I think that's a misleading perception. A perfect example is Stewart Elliott," who rode Smarty Jones to win the 2004 running in his first and only Derby mount.

"Stewart came down the stretch like a lizard on a log," said Desormeaux. "First Derby ride - boom, straight to the winner's circle. He came down there like he'd done it 50 times. Hey, these guys are all trained veterans. You give them the horse, they're going to get it done - especially guys like Johnny, Garrett, and Robby."

Desormeaux said the fact that he already has two Derby victories under his belt might give him a subtle edge Saturday, simply because he may not be feeling as much pressure as someome who hasn't yet won.

"The first time I was in the Derby with a chance, it was Real Quiet," he said. "That race went so fast, I was like, 'Hey, how'd I get here?' Then on Pegasus, it was like everything was in slow motion. That's what it'll be like for me and the other guys who've already won," alluding to Prado, Mike Smith (Giacomo, 2005), and Calvin Borel (Street Sense, 2007). "Some of those other guys, it'll be like, 'Oh no, please God, no mistakes.' I feel quite honored and very blessed to be in the position I'm in."

Gomez, who has never been close in four previous Derby rides, has the mount Saturday on Court Vision.

"Kent's been lucky enough to win a couple times, and Edgar's been lucky enough to win one," said Gomez. "I'm 36, and all of us are pretty much still young. Hopefully there's still time.

"The rest of our records show for themselves. Heck, the Derby only happens once a year, and there's only one guy able to win it. Mike Smith, he's one of the accomplished guys still around, and he got his Derby a couple years ago. Some other guys might get lucky and win right off the bat.

"Actually, I think if you look at all these jocks, it shows that talent runs deep. We're out there riding every day, year-round, and it's an ever-striving task to stay on top all the time. You've got a lot of great jocks out there riding today. They're trying to get there, too."