03/03/2011 2:10PM

Jockeys juggle mounts on road to the Derby


Kentucky Derby prospects are like bacon. You can never have too much.

Ramon Dominguez rode J P’s Gusto to a second-place finish in the Southwest Stakes two weeks ago, rode Gourmet Dinner to a second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes last week, is on Stay Thirsty in the Gotham Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct, and is scheduled to ride Brethren in the Tampa Bay Derby next weekend. That gives him four potential prospects to weed through over the next two months, but with no guarantee that any of them will pan out.

While every top jockey in the country covets the Derby, the very best try to stockpile as many prospects as possible early on, then deftly hang onto them as long as possible. Crunch time starts now, two months out. There are many moving parts, involving the progress of the horses – or lack thereof – in key prep races, the negotiating skills of each rider’s agent, and the temperament of trainers and owners, some of whom want a commitment right now, some of whom are willing to wait.

“Fortunately for us, all our 3-year-olds are going in different directions, which is great,” Steve Rushing, the agent for Dominguez, said from New York this week. “We don’t have to do any juggling yet.”

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Dominguez and Rushing are not the only ones facing critical decisions with 3-year-olds currently in the top 20 of Daily Racing Form ’s Derby Watch. John Velazquez rode To Honor and Serve to a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth and next week will be on 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo in his scheduled 3-year-old debut. Julien Leparoux has been riding Dialed In and Rogue Romance, and Martin Garcia has Jaycito and The Factor.

If those horses stay healthy, their riders at some point will be faced with tough decisions on whom to stick with. According to Rushing and Ron Anderson, the agent for Garrett Gomez, a balance has to be struck between trying to win the Derby and remaining loyal to good customers.

“When you’re this far out, if you think the horses are close in ability, you might lean toward the trainer who gives you the most business,” Rushing said. “As you get closer to the Derby, you have to lean on which horse you think gives you the best chance.”

Anderson, largely agreeing, said, “Most of the time, it’s trainer loyalty, but at Derby time, you have to look for the best horse.”

“I think people accept that when it comes to the Derby, and they understand,” Anderson added. “You still have to play politics, but the Derby changes it a little bit.”

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Anderson said he will seek input from his rider. Currently, he is with Gomez, but in years past, he faced similar situations with the likes of Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens.

“My first question to them when they ride a 3-year-old is how far they think the horse will run,” Anderson said. “Even if the horse just ran six furlongs, I want to get a feel for what my jock thinks. Can they maybe go a mile? Can they run all day?”

Already this spring, Anderson and Gomez have had to choose. Last fall, Gomez rode Brethren to an allowance victory at Churchill Downs. In January, he rode Tapizar to an easy victory in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. On Feb. 12, Brethren ran in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa and Tapizar ran in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

“We are based at Santa Anita, and we had won a stake with Tapizar, so we stayed here,” Anderson said. “He was 1-5. And he gets hurt. And the other horse won. You try to hold off on situations like this as long as you can, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. There’s no blueprint on how to handle this. A lot of it is feel.”

Pletcher – who trains Brethen, Stay Thirsty, and Uncle Mo – said that much of what a trainer has to do in situations like this is gauge the wishes of each horse’s owner.

“Some want a commitment, because they want to know that that rider will be with their horse down the line,” Pletcher said this week from Florida. “Others figure, ‘Let’s get the best rider now, and worry about everything else later.’ I’m more of that camp.

“Ideally, you’d like to have a rider be on your horse before the Derby, but I think there’s some truth to what Jerry Bailey used to say, that sometimes you ride a horse best the first time you ride him. To me, some people get worked up over this way too soon. You can’t worry about what’s going to happen four races from now. You need to get there first. You could have a lot of prospects in January and February and have nothing by May.”

Opportunities can come and go with little warning. In 1995, Anderson was in Hong Kong with Stevens, who was riding there. They came to the United States and won the Santa Anita Derby with Larry the Legend, but by the time they got back to Hong Kong, they learned Larry the Legend was injured and out of the Derby.

But Mike Smith that year had two prospective Derby mounts. He chose Talkin Man, who went off at 4-1 in the Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas tried to get Stevens to ride Thunder Gulch in the Derby, but Stevens was not interested. Smith, however, talked Stevens into it. Thunder Gulch, at 24-1, gave Stevens his second Derby win. Talkin Man finished 12th. Smith needed another decade to finally win the Derby.

In 2004, Anderson, now working with Bailey, had four Derby prospects two months out. They ended up siding with Wimbledon, who entered the Derby but never made it to the starting gate, having to be scratched with an injury the day before the race.

“You try to hold on for as long as possible because there’s so many big races,” Anderson said. “But the reality is you could end up with none. Horses get hurt. They fall off the Derby trail. You never really know.”