02/13/2014 4:33PM

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.”

Richard More than 1 year ago
Susan Huart More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the great read, jay! I enjoy the real pros so much more, both the horse and human, lol! They all need experience, which makes them so much smarter on the track.
Old timer More than 1 year ago
I was at Belmont when Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the FIFTH straight time. He was 7 years old. A friend just quipped "old bones make good soup." nice article Jay... old guys rule!
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Never get tired hearing about Kelso, was it a sloppy track that year?
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
Russell Baze is comfortable riding where he is, he can ride with anybody on the planet, but you can only work with the horse you ride. Every time he leaves norcal, he gets on inferior stock and is expected to make a silk purse out of a cows ear. When he does venture south, he has to pick up mounts that are left overs and all that does is make him look inferior to the Socal riders. He can ride with Stevens or Smith anytime.
Renuncia Cupelluni More than 1 year ago
Or sow's ear, even. . . .
Walter More than 1 year ago
It seems a lot of comments about Russell Baze. I do have a question... Baze has ridden thousands of winners for Hollendorfer over the years. Now Hollendorfer has much better horses winning big time races. Why doesn't Jerry ever use Russell Baze for his quality horses?
Hail No More than 1 year ago
A curious reply was the 3rd at GG today. Dorf had a horse, Baze took a different mount, neither won. I ask myself that same question, though about Dorf and Baze. I believe Russell stated awhile back, that the traveling and stress was too much for him, perhaps? and don't forget the "allergies" :-)
Joseph More than 1 year ago
That's a good question that Jerry should answer!
Bill Feingold More than 1 year ago
As in Tamarando in the El Camino Real Derby?
Bill Feingold More than 1 year ago
If Baze rode in So Cal I'm sure he would. He has made it very clear he prefers to ride in No Cal. Jerry's best horses are in So Cal. End of story.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Looks like Tamarando could have a shot in the Spiral or Bluegrass, is Jerry gonna keep Baze on the horse? I'm sure Russell doesn't mind making a couple of trips for some big races. We have to wait and see
Patricia Jones More than 1 year ago
a must read
Green1John More than 1 year ago
They keep riding because they need the money and it makes them feel important.
Susan Huart More than 1 year ago
You are green, John!
angel baure More than 1 year ago
michael More than 1 year ago
They keep riding because theyre better than a lot of the others. And there are many who should find different jobs
Raymond Hackinson More than 1 year ago
Seeing the way some if not most apprentices ride It is not a wonder the really good (and smart) jockeys have lasted While some apprentices get the wow factor for their derring do rides, the really good ones learn there are many moves on the race track.
Bob More than 1 year ago
Russel Baze doesn't belong in the same conversation as these other riders. He has spent the last 20+ years riding mostly 3/5 favorites in 6 horse fields in his own back yard. While the rest of these guys have traveled the globe riding against the toughest competition in the world, winning major stakes at the Grade I level wherever they ride. Baze on the other hand, rarely wins a graded stake race, rarely wins we he isn't riding in Northern California and almost never wins with the unexpected longshot in races where the skill of the rider has a lot to do with the outcome of the race. Sure he has won a lot of races, but so did Dale Baird back in the days when Moutaineer Park raced 365 days a year and rarely offered a purse of more than $500. Any decent rider in Baze's situation would have won just as many races over the span of a similar career if they had been riding for the same connections.
Tony Ruiz More than 1 year ago
Dont hate.
Rick_Buck More than 1 year ago
I've heard it a thousand times before... Laffit Pincay called Russel a great jockey - and he probably knows more than you about the "skills of a jockey". 20 years ago.. I heard the same thing over and over about Hollendorfer, he was only the top dog because he trained in Northern California.. He couldn't compete with the better trainers. Those loudmouths have receded as Jerry has proved again and again he is amongst the very best.
Greg Stevens More than 1 year ago
I don't think jerry is among the best...just my opinion...and I certainly don't think Baze is one of the best, I wouldn't let him ride for me...I respect all his wins, and his longevity, but as far as his resume it is very weak..10,000 of his wins were against 4 horse fields...just not a great "body of work"
Walter More than 1 year ago
I'm neither a Baze hater nor a supporter. But I do have a question. Hollendorfer has had much better horses in recent years that have won some big time races. Why doesn't he ever put Baze on any of them?