02/13/2014 3:33PM

Jay Hovdey: At Santa Anita, graybeards ruling the jockeys' room


In the $200,000 Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, key contenders will be ridden by Mike Smith, age 48; Alex Solis, 49; Corey Nakatani, 43; and Kent Desormeaux, who will be 44 in two weeks.

Among the regulars missing from the mix will be Martin Pedroza, 48, who suffered a fractured right leg last week, and Gary Stevens, 50, who will be riding in the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

For a change, Stevens might enjoy not being the oldest guy in the starting gate. Russell Baze, a cousin by Gary’s first marriage, is 55 and riding like a man half that number, which would be about the same age as Joel Rosario, Mario Gutierrez, or Rosie Napravnik. Joining Stevens and Baze for the El Camino Real will be Isaias Enriquez, 40; Aaron Gryder, 43; Dennis Carr, 44; and Frank Alvarado, who is 45. Jose Valdivia, who rides one for Bob Baffert, is just 39. No doubt the others will call him “sonny,” or worse.

Dealing with age and athletes is a tricky business. Usually, stories about “the old guy” are played as novelties, the exception to the rule. Ageism plays a large role in opportunity as well, since sports, professional and otherwise, is one thing definitely not wasted on the young.

The Winter Olympics now commanding attention is replete with spectacular teenagers doing wondrous things. According to a USA Today study last fall, the average age of the players on the 32 NFL rosters ranged from 24.98 (the Rams) to 27.15 (the Lions). Another chart revealed that the average age of the players on the 30 NBA teams was between 24 1/2 (the Rockets) and 32 1/2 (the Knicks).

Such stats make sense. Olympians, seen only once every four years, move on to other opportunities, while the physical toll of football and basketball can use up human inventory at an alarming rate. But even a league like pro golf, hardly a contact sport, skews young. Of the 29 players who won official PGA Tour events in 2013, only four of them were over 40.

So what’s going on in the jockeys’ room? As other sports continue to send their veterans into the cold to die alone – or survive as TV announcers – the profession of Thoroughbred race riding seems to be trending ever more toward experience and durability.

“Forty-three is the new twenty-something I guess,” said Smith. “Jockeys just seem to stay in better shape these days. Look at the guys in these races Saturday. They’re all great athletes who have kept themselves in great shape.

”Remember, though,” Smith added, “we don’t do the running. That’s a big difference. I mean, we’re tearing up our bodies, don’t get me wrong. But if you can stay in good shape there’s nothing like experience, especially when you have to make quick decision after quick decision. Having faced those decisions so many times makes your reactions almost automatic. If a quarterback wasn’t so physically abused, wouldn’t you take Joe Montana with a decent body right now?”

Stevens will be riding at Golden Gate for the first time since 1998. With Baze still on the scene it will seem like yesterday.

“It will also be kind of nice not to be the oldest guy in the room for a change,” Stevens said. “Until I hit that magic number 50 last year age wasn’t really a factor with me. But then it was like a cloud came over me. ‘Oh, my God, he’s 50.’ All it was was a date on the calendar.”

Stevens managed to quiet the concern about his advanced years by having a banner season topped by victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Distaff. Smith chipped in at the Breeders’ Cup with three wins of his own.

“We’re very unique athletes, especially when you look at the healing power of jockeys,” Stevens said. “Unlike other athletes who are trying to bulk up and put on muscle mass, we are very lean. When we fall we handle crashes that would put most people out of commission for a long time.

“Then again, we don’t have 340-pound linemen who can run a sub-five 40 coming at us from all directions,” Stevens noted. “Sure, we have a racehorse land on us once in awhile. But for the most part they are partners with us out there.”

When Stevens came on the scene in the early 1980’s, the twin towers of the jockeys room in California were named Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay.

“Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. Pincay set the bar for us,” Stevens said. “They were kind of ageless. Given the way my knees were going, and how much traveling I was doing, I remember telling Eddie Delahoussaye that I wouldn’t be riding past 33. He just laughed at me.

“What’s the old saying?” Stevens added. “If I’d have known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself? If I’d have known I would be getting this kind of opportunity later in life I probably would have slowed down a little back then. But when you’re a young guy you’re not thinking 20 years down the road. You’re thinking about rides next week. Now I think every day I get to ride is a blessing.”