09/06/2012 12:15PM

Hovdey: Reflections on a golden age of California jockeys

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Hall of Famers Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1988, an era when California-based riders ruled the riding landscape.

The suspicion lingered, then a single race seemed to drive home the point. There was a time when a top jockey could leave Southern California for whatever reason, and the pond would barely ripple. But with the departure of Joel Rosario for New York last June, there was a general shaking of heads that an increasingly thin, top-heavy West Coast colony just got thinner and top-heavier.

Then Rosario, basically out of sight and mind, came back to Del Mar just long enough to grab the richest California stakes event of the season, when he powered Dullahan past Hollywood Gold Cup winner Game On Dude in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Having reminded everyone he was the same guy who’d won 11 California meet titles over the last four years, Rosario split in a cloud of dust and was back to work the next day at Saratoga, leaving Californians to chew anew on what their racing world looks like post-Joel.

So far it looks pretty much like Rafael Bejarano, who since 2008 has won all the titles at Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park that Rosario did not. With no Joel around, Bejarano, 30, waltzed to lopsided titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar this summer, and figures to walk his beat again at the Santa Anita meet this fall.

For fans of dynasties this works fine – Laffit Pincay won Santa Anita titles by margins of 102-63, 108-74, and 138-70 in the early 1970s – but pennant races are a lot more fun, and handicapping, as an intellectual exercise, ideally should not begin and end with the name of the rider.

On paper, Bejarano would figure to have plenty of competition. (The same could be said of Ramon Dominguez, who turned this year’s Saratoga meet into a one-man show.) This summer at Del Mar, Bejarano’s closest pursuers were Joe Talamo, who at age 22 is just about everyone’s choice as the Next Big Thing; Garrett Gomez, an Eclipse Award winner and four-time national champion; and Martin Garcia, 28, whose résumé already includes a Preakness and a Santa Anita Handicap.

Gomez is 40, giving him grizzled veteran status, and he has plenty of company. A tour of the California room will find fitness freaks Victor Espinoza (40) and Mike Smith (47), the resurgent Corey Nakatani (41), laid-back David Flores (44), the indestructible Martin Pedroza (47), and even Patrick Valenzuela, his soon-to-be 50-year-old body defying all odds.

Given the right horse, they still can rise to the most challenging occasions. Valenzuela has won four straight Grade 1 stakes with 2011 champion older horse Acclamation. Nakatani won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races just last year at Churchill Downs. Once Del Mar is in the books Pedroza will be holding class again at Fairplex Park, where he has been the most dominant rider in the history of the bullring.

Compare the current population, though, to the collection of veterans at work out West at the turn of the 21st century, when the jocks’ room could have been mistaken for a wing of the Saratoga Springs Hall of Fame. Even in 2000 Pincay was still The Man, but by then Eddie Delahoussaye (49), Chris McCarron (45), and Gary Stevens (37) had earned legendary status. Kent Desormeaux and Alex Solis weren’t very far behind.

Today’s veterans, while respected as a group, will leave a different legacy. This is to be expected, owing to the ebb and flow of human endeavor in all walks of life. Anyway, to compare generations in any athletic sub-group is usually to reveal the speaker as a crotchety old fart who longs for the days of Koufax, Clemente, and Johnny U.

Still, to lament that things aren’t as good, as fast, as sweet, or as satisfying as they used to be is also a cherished ritual among sports fans and media. No harm is done, as long as they maintain perspective. Or in the words of trainer Tom Proctor: “Everything seems like it was bigger when we were younger. Better, too.”

Proctor, the son of trainer W.L. Proctor, was force-fed historical perspective from an early age. As a teen, working for his dad, he watched Jerry Lambert on the Proctor mare Convenience outfox Bill Shoemaker and champion Typecast in their thrilling 1972 match race at Hollywood Park. When he went on his own to train, briefly handling the California string of Glen Hill Farm runners in the late 1970s, Tom Proctor found himself smack in the middle of another transitional era.

“Shoemaker was my stable rider,” he beamed. “And I was just as proud of putting Delahoussaye on his first California winner.”

That was 1979. The year before Delahoussaye led all North American jockeys in winners. Four-time national champion Sandy Hawley, two-time champion Chris McCarron, and 1978 money champ Darrel McHargue already had migrated to California. A few years later, Stevens hit the scene after dominating the Northwest. Stir in Shoemaker and Pincay, the twin institutions, and the table was set for a golden age.

“Every time you turned around you ran into a future Hall of Famer,” Proctor said.

Mike Smith, it should be noted, is the only active Hall of Famer currently calling the rooms of Southern California home. Then again, there are not that many around. Russell Baze is still doing business in Northern California, while Desormeaux, Edgar Prado, and the newly minted Hall of Famer John Velazquez can be found down East.

But the presence of Hall of Famers in a given colony is hardly a fair measure, given the inconsistent politics of the selection process. During California’s golden age of the 1980s, Shoemaker and Pincay were the only Hall of Famers in the room. McCarron (class of 1989), Hawley (’92), Delahoussaye (’93), and Stevens (’97) were busy at the time still building reputations on a national scale.

“It was a lot of fun,” Stevens said. “They were good days. I was out every morning, working the horses McCarron, McHargue, and Shoemaker were riding. I knew they’d be doubled up in a lot of spots, and whichever horse they chose I wanted the opportunity to ride the one they didn’t. Those days are gone now, unless you’re the guy sitting behind Bejarano.”

Stevens, who retired in 2005, works as a racing analyst for NBC Sports and HRTV, affording him a good perch from which to observe trends in jockey talent.

“I think the colony is deeper in the East than in California, and that’s primarily because of the number of horses,” Stevens said. “I’m not saying there’s a lack of talented riders in California, but there is a lack of opportunity. And if you’re not getting opportunities, how do you improve, or even show what talent you’ve got? It’s tough to make things happen in a five-horse field.

“When I came down from Seattle nobody knew who I was,” Stevens said. “I started getting opportunities on longshots, but in those days the fields were big enough that you might ride a 15-1 shot that had a chance, and if you put it in the right spot you could win. That’s what caught people’s attention.”

Stevens maintains it is not only geographic isolation and field size that retards the development of talent out West.

“Jockeys today are faced with the super stables in California – the Bafferts, the O’Neills, the Sadlers, even Peter Miller now,” Stevens said. “If you’re not tied in with one of those barns you’re not going to get that opportunity. We all know how the game goes: We see the same guys riding the favorites in every race, favorites win about 30 percent of the time, and people look at winning percentages when they pick their riders. How do you break into that?

“Mario Gutierrez is a good example,” he said. “Doug O’Neill and Paul Reddam gave him a shot with I’ll Have Another and other horses, and he came through. But there weren’t any other barns behind him, so he left, even though I don’t think we’ve seen more than the tip of the iceberg in terms of his ability.

“I’ve had several young riders ask me about coming out to California,” Stevens said. “I tell them they’d better come with a big stable, otherwise they’re probably not going to get the opportunities they deserve. I’m not knocking Southern California racing, but we are on an island, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change soon.”


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The annual list of leading money-winners has been a useful tool in gauging the trends in the concentration of jockey power. Consider a series of snapshots at 10-year intervals of the Southern California influence on the national standings:

In 1982 − when the list was led by New York’s Angel Cordero − Californians Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Bill Shoemaker also populated the top 10, and California-based Sandy Hawley, Pat Valenzuela, Ray Sibille, and Marco Castaneda were among the top 20.

In 1992, Californians occupied four of the top five spots at year’s end and six of the top 10: champion Kent Desormeaux, McCarron, Delahoussaye, Stevens, Valenzuela, and Alex Solis. Pincay, David Flores and Nakatani gave the West Coast nine of the top 15 riders.

In 2002 California jockeys still were a presence on the final standings, although they were drifting south. Victor Espinoza, who rode 3-year-old champion War Emblem, was the highest-ranking among them in sixth, followed by Valenzuela, Solis, and Desormeaux. Mike Smith, a transplanted New Yorker, found his way to 11th primarily on the wings of California-based Horse of the Year Azeri, while Pincay, at age 55, ranked 13th.

That was then. Now Pincay has retired, as well as Delahoussaye, Stevens, and McCarron. Valenzuela has been marginalized by injuries and assorted personal travails, and both Desormeaux and Solis have migrated eastward. Through the first eight months of 2012, there were fewer California riders in leading mix than recent memory can recall.

Bejarano, Rosario, and Talamo are among the top 10, while Smith and Nakatani make the top 20. But Rosario is a Californian no more, and Smith, who dearly loves the California lifestyle, has earned the majority of his money on the road this year with horses such as Bodemeister, Royal Delta, and Mucho Macho Man.

Corey Nakatani’s career has spanned the generations. In 1989, against the best in the West, the native Californian led North America’s apprentices in earnings (East Coast-based Mike Luzzi won the Eclipse Award). At 19, in early 1990, he was part of the Santa Anita room that bade farewell to the retiring Bill Shoemaker. At 23, Nakatani won the first of his 10 Southern California titles at Del Mar, and by his 29th birthday he’d already won five Breeders’ Cup events. In 2006 and 2007 he rode California superstar Lava Man to 10 victories, including two Hollywood Gold Cups and two Santa Anita Handicaps.

In 2012, after a sojourn east, Nakatani finds himself back home rebuilding his California business and recalling his early experiences going head to head with Pincay, Shoemaker, McCarron, Delahoussaye, and Stevens. Nakatani would look around and see so many guys doing so many things well on very live mounts that often his best hope was that someone would make a mistake. It helped that, even as a teenager, he was far from intimidated by his surroundings.

“The guys that I learned how to ride from, most of them you knew what you could do to get them to do something wrong,” Nakatani said. “Then there were the guys you knew you couldn’t. Laffit, you couldn’t faze. He’d just knuckle them. You knew he always had something extra, so you’d better get to him sooner than you think you should. Shoemaker, he was always loaded, just playing with you. You learned patience from him.”

Nakatani does not hide his disdain for jockeys who lack what he considers the basic skills needed to do the job. He concedes, though, that California racing is different these days, both in terms of experience for young jockeys and opportunities for all.

“You can’t learn sitting in the room,” he said. “And it shows out there.”

Along with Nakatani, such world-wise California veterans as Solis, Desormeaux, Gomez, Jose Valdivia, and Aaron Gryder have been bouncing around the racing world as they age, hoping to maintain their lifestyles. More power to them, and good for the patrons who appreciate their skills. Still, the trend toward mobility among the ranks of veterans has deprived up-and-coming jockeys with the continuity of senior riders in residence that Nakatani’s generation enjoyed.

“Every one of those guys had class,” Nakatani said of his younger years. “You watched how they rode and how they lived, and you learned, then you made your own mistakes along the way. I’ve made many of them, I know. But the older you get, the wiser you get. It’s great if I can pass that on.”

Of course, there is no college ball for jockeys, no minor leagues offering 80 mph fastballs and lightly hanging curves. The ground is just as hard at Portland Meadows or Pocatello as it is at Santa Anita, and the horses still run faster than most mere mortals can think, at least while perched in a saddle.

“If I see poor horsemanship in the morning I don’t ride them in the afternoon,” said Tom Proctor, who watched his father and the young Earlie Fires (Hall of Fame 2001) tear up the Midwest. “Young jocks don’t learn all the horsemen’s stuff they’d used to learn at home. You’d walk horses, rub horses, and work in the barn. That’s how you should learn. Now you show up with a helmet.

“We had a kid working in behind horses, and he’d keep coming out, trying to get away from the dirt,” Proctor said. “I told him we used to put them on a bale of hay then squirt water and throw dirt at ’em ’til they got used to it. My assistant said, ‘Man, that’s a good idea. We could sell tickets to do that.’ ”

He laughed, but the idea made sense.

“My dad knew not all of them were going to be successful,” Proctor said. “But he at least had them safe when they were out there.”

Tom Ward agrees with the sentiment. As Southern California’s senior steward, he has borne witness to more than 35 years worth of jockey history, from the Shoemaker-Pincay era to Bejarano-Rosario.

“These are good jockeys, and they know how to win races,” Ward said. “But horsemanship on the part of some riders nowadays is not what it was years ago. A good jockey/horseman will pick a line in the stretch and not waver off that line unless they want to. They’ll get off a horse and tell a trainer A, B, or C and be very specific. And they’ll be aware of everything they did out there.”

With an erosion in basic horsemanship, Ward noted, there has been a shift away from what was once accepted as clean, hard race-riding. When skills are not as precise, race-riding can turn quickly to disaster. Officials have reacted accordingly.

“I appreciate good race-riding, and I think there was a time stewards let it happen more often,” Ward said. “If you don’t let them race-ride to a certain degree, then I don’t think the better rider has any advantage. Now it’s a different atmosphere.”

When it comes to comparing the current level of jockey quality in California to the rest of the nation, Ward reached back to his early days as a steward at the Big Show, when the greatest jockeys of the East would test their chops against the best in the West.

“Angel Cordero, Jacinto Vasquez, and Jorge Velasquez – we should have had chairs with their names on them,” Ward said, enjoying the memory. “Whenever they rode out here they were in to see us virtually every day. And that’s when New York had this reputation of tough stewards and clean riding. I found it hard to believed they changed their style just by coming to California.”

If anything, Ward gets the feeling that contemporary jockeys, no matter what their skill level, reflect the anxious, hurried mood of the broader sports culture.

“There was a time a rider would go for a hole, get his horse’s head up in there, and then get shut off,” Ward said. “He’d chalk it up to experience. Now, more often than not, they’ll claim foul.

“Delahoussaye always had the best outlook,” Ward said. “If we ever gave him days he said he would never appeal. When we asked him why he said, ‘Because I should have gotten days so many other times and didn’t.’ ” 


LEADING JOCKEYS BY EARNINGS

(California-based jockeys in bold)

1982

Rk. Jockey Wins Earnings
1 Angel Cordero Jr. 397 $9,702,520
2 LAFFIT PINCAY JR. 302 9,076,024
3 CHRIS MCCARRON 313 7,392,914
4 EDDIE DELAHOUSSAYE 208 6,987,982
5 Jorge Velasquez 287 6,867,072
6 Don MacBeth 199 4,973,469
7 Jeffrey Fell 191 4,842,867
8 Pat Day 399 4,744,558
9 BILL SHOEMAKER 113 4,691,342
10 Eddie Maple 167 4,497.407
11 Jean-Luc Samyn 157 4,380,502
12 SANDY HAWLEY 176 4,019,183
13 PAT VALENZUELA 181 3,993,698
14 RAY SIBILLE 167 3,930,453
15 Randy Romero 295 3,857,935


1992

Rk. Jockey Wins Earnings
1 KENT DESORMEAUX 361 $14,193,006
2 CHRIS MCCARRON 193 12,861,946
3 EDDIE DELAHOUSSAYE 270 12,752,971
4 Pat Day 291 12,557,077
5 GARY STEVENS 250 11,201,577
6 Mike Smith 314 11,087,541
7 Jerry Bailey 227 10,865,789
8 PAT VALENZUELA 219 10,268,342
9 Julie Krone 282 9,220,824
10 ALEX SOLIS 228 8,835,192
11 LAFFIT PINCAY JR. 194 7,339,460
12 Chris Antley 210 6,987,380
13 Herbert McCauley 166 6,782,113
14 DAVID FLORES 197 6,703,815
15 COREY NAKATANI 190 6,414,067


2002

Rk. Jockey Wins Earnings
1 Jerry Bailey 213 $19,271,814
2 Edgar Prado 289 18,024,429
3 John Velazquez 289 16,361,445
4 Pat Day 258 15,904,396
5 Jorge Chavez 223 13,721,254
6 VICTOR ESPINOZA 188 12,590,646
7 PAT VALENZUELA 221 12,544,098
8 ALEX SOLIS 217 12,027,315
9 Jose Santos 176 11,917,955
10 KENT DESORMEAUX 160 11,675,207
11 MIKE SMITH 112 10,807,977
12 Robby Albarado 270 10,181,703
13 LAFFIT PINCAY JR. 205 9,568,457
14 Patrick Husbands 169 9,343,361
15 Javier Castellano 194 8,819,053


2012
(Through Tuesday)

Rk. Jockey Wins Earnings
1 Ramon Dominguez 234 $16,496,076
2 Javier Castellano 237 15,540,437
3 RAFAEL BEJARANO 203 12,664,782
4 John Velazquez 137 12,098,916
5 JOEL ROSARIO* 154 9,886,974
6 Julien Leparoux 132 9,577,080
7 Rosie Napravnik 143 8,677,726
8 JOE TALAMO 147 8,639,249
9 Jose Lezcano 131 8,505,172
10 Junior Alvarado 136 8,178,955
11 MIKE SMITH 49 6,766,555
12 Cornelio Velasquez 133 6,622,284
13 Luis Contreras 115 6,597,870
14 Rajiv Maragh 104 6,332,758
15 COREY NAKATANI 81 6,082,744

*Rosario relocated to New York in June