05/03/2012 9:16AM

Hovdey: Derby-winning riders recognize luck plays a part

Benoit & Associates
Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Eddie Delahoussaye, with trainer John Shirreffs in 2000, says coming into the stretch at Churchill Downs, when tired horses are stopping and other horses are trying to move up, is a traffic jam for jockeys.

Of the 20 riders in the starting gate for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, perched on thin stirrups and grabbing mane, only four of them know what it’s like to win the whole ball of wax.

For the rest such a moment is only a dream, elusive as perfection. There is only one Kentucky Derby each year and only so many years in a career that could end at any moment, accompanied by the sound of a clipped heel and the feel of hard, rising ground.

Of those 20, only Kent Desormeaux, Calvin Borel, Mike Smith, and John Velazquez understand that the race can be won, sometimes more than once, and that 20 horses are not that many after all as long as your legs are wrapped around the one named Big Brown, Street Sense, Animal Kingdom, or Giacomo.

For the rest, for the 16 who dare to dream, Saturday evening could bring that moment when they join an exclusive club of the 32 living riders who can tell you what it’s like to win a Kentucky Derby. Dave Erb, 89, can describe how he swung Needles from deep out of the pack to run down Fabius and Bill Hartack in 1956. The graceful Brauilo Baeza, now 72, was liquid silver the day he deftly handled Never Bend and Candy Spots with Chateaugay in 1963. Don Brumfield is 73 and still the same Kentucky boy who put them all to sleep while taking Kauai King wire-to-wire in 1966, just as Laffit Pincay, a dashing 65, knew in 1984 that Swale was a winner every step of the way.

To a man, the 32 in the club understand the remorseless formula required to win a Kentucky Derby. It takes the right horse and the right trip, each ingredient in perfect proportion. The best horse in the race might win with a bad trip, but don’t bet on it, even as perfect journeys are wasted on horses who were never, ever good enough to win.

“About the best thing you can do is try to get a position, somewhere in the first flight,” said Bobby Ussery, who finished first in the Kentucky Derbies of 1967 and ‘68. “I know Calvin Borel got through on the rail from way back on Mine That Bird, but that don’t happen too often. With 20 horses you hate to get back to last. It’s not a pretty sight.”

Ussery, 77, had to give back his Derby win of 1968 when Dancer’s Image tested positive for the then-banned substance phenylbutazone. They all run on it now, but there you go. As far as Ussery is concerned he won Derbies back-to-back out there on the track, where it counts. And to accomplish such a rare turn Ussery knows he had to be as lucky.

“The worst luck I had was with Little Current,” Ussery went on, citing the landmark Derby of 1974 when 23 horses were crammed into the gates.

“There was no way I could ride a good race,” he said. “I think I had one horse beat early, and I never got a break. All that dirt’s coming back at you. I could never get to where I could save any ground, and I was watching horses getting bothered in front of me. I finally had to swing him out past the middle of the racetrack.”

He wasn’t kidding. Check the replay on the Derby website and you will see a horse emerge from deep in the field entering the stretch, veering dramatically away from the staggering finishers spread across the track. That’s Ussery and Little Current, closer to the outside rail than the inside, coming with a whole lot too late. They were fifth, beaten about six lengths by a very lucky Angel Cordero and Cannonade.

DRF Archive
Eddie Arcaro on Whirlaway, one of his record-tying five Derby-winning mounts. Arcaro is the only jockey who won the Triple Crown twice, with Whirlaway and Citation.

“When they galloped out after the race he was in front,” Ussery said. “And you saw what he went on to do in the next two.”

With Miguel Rivera in the saddle, Little Current took both the Preakness and the Belmont with ease.

That was Ussery’s final Derby, but his lament is hardly sour grapes. More like front-line reporting from a battlefield. Both Proud Clarion (30-1) and Dancer’s Image (7-2) topped fields of 14, and they got the trips they needed, working their way from well back to be in contention before the final quarter-mile commenced.

In that regard Eddie Delahoussaye insists there is luck to be had in the Derby, if a rider is in the right place at the right time. Delahoussaye is one of the five riders who won back-to-back Derbies and got to keep them both, his coming aboard Gato del Sol in 1982 and Sunny’s Halo in 1983.

“What plays into it more than the 20 horses is that jocks just get carried away,” said Delahoussaye, who turned 60 last year. “They don’t ride the same kind of race they do in normal circumstances. A lot of guys panic, especially young riders for the first time in the Derby. You can talk to them all you want about what they’ll be facing out there, but once they get in that gate they get excited, and they lose it.”

On Saturday, there will be four jockeys riding the Derby for the first time: Colm O’Donoghue on UAE Derby winner Daddy Long Legs, Luis Contreras on Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective, Sheldon Russell on Illinois Derby winner Done Talking, and Mario Gutierrez on Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another. Delahoussaye, who hit the board in six of his 13 Derby rides, was asked if he had the rookie jitters back in 1975, when he rode the longshot Honey Mark.

“Naw,” he replied. “I was pretty cool. But I’ve always been pretty cool.”

This is vintage Delahoussaye, cool enough to dip and dive, hitting every possible hole, while taking Gato del Sol from last of 19 to win by 2 1/2 lengths at odds of 21-1. Cool enough as well to survive his next-to-last Derby in 2001 when he was nearly dropped on the far turn aboard Jamaican Rum, who ran on gamely to finish sixth.

“You can get in a lot of trouble out of the gate ‘cause guys are trying to position themselves,” Delahoussaye said. “But it’s the last turn where it gets hectic, when the dead horses are stopping and others are moving. I thought I was going down that day.”

As for this year’s Derby, Delahoussaye foresees yet another running where the best trip will make the difference.

“It would be nice to just put the 12 best horses in there,” Delahoussaye said. “But you can still get in plenty of trouble. Heck, you can get in trouble with three. This one looks like any one of a bunch of horses can win.”

Ussery agrees, and as long as the 138th Derby is so wide open he hopes good fortune smiles upon one of those the riders who have yet to smell the roses.

“I’d love to see someone win it who hasn’t won it,” Ussery said. “It’s such a thrill. I’d like to share that happiness.”