04/30/2013 2:55PM

Kentucky Derby: Krigger's journey hits peak with ride on Goldencents

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Kevin Krigger celebrates after winning the Santa Anita Derby aboard Goldencents, his mount in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The phone calls would come often from the school Kevin Krigger attended, with the same message for his father, Albert.

“Mr. Krigger, your son and daughter are out on the road with the horses,” he was told. “They’re supposed to be in school.

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Albert Krigger would come home and remind his son about the importance of going to school.

“But, tomorrow, same thing,” he remembered.

“He was into it, from the time he was really small,” Albert Krigger said. “I would give him money to go buy shoes, or books, and he’d buy more horse stuff – wraps, bandages, brushes. He had the smallest, fastest, best-looking horse.”

The Kriggers – father and son – have been side by side for years, but their bond has grown closer in recent weeks for an obvious reason: Kevin, 29, is going to be riding in the Kentucky Derby for the first time Saturday, aboard Goldencents, marking quite a journey from those early days in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.

“I always liked horses as a kid,” Kevin Krigger remembered, “and I was small, so I got into horse racing. Straight to horse racing at 17.”

Kevin Krigger was standing along the outer rail at Churchill Downs, watching horses train, the famed twin spires across the way. He took it all in complacently, befitting the cool he has shown in the saddle aboard Goldencents. But Albert was pacing in circles.

“I’m going to be all over the place Saturday,” Albert Krigger said. “I don’t keep still.”

Kevin Krigger is one of the more intriguing stories in this Derby. His presence is obviously reminiscent of that of Mario Gutierrez, who won last year’s Derby on I’ll Have Another. Both I’ll Have Another and Goldencents are trained by Doug O’Neill. Krigger, though, will be seeking to become the first black jockey to win the Derby since 1902.

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“I’m ready for it,” Krigger said.

He’ll have quite the entourage watching. In addition to his father, his mother, sister, fiancée, and four kids – daughters Kyrisha, 12, and Kynaira, 3, and sons Kevin Jr., 7, and Kunzai, 6 – will be in attendance. His sons were dressed to impress at the Santa Anita Derby, with sharp suits that stood out in the winner’s circle.

“They always come to the races pretty sharp,” said Krigger, who speaks with the lilting accent of the Caribbean. “They know how to come out.”

Krigger’s ascension in racing is quite improbable. Albert had no involvement in racing, other than being a fan. In St. Croix, he worked as a mechanic on heavy machinery and “made rum.”

“I worked in a rum factory,” he said.

Though a cousin of Albert’s got into racing, Kevin – Albert’s only son, and the second of his four kids – got interested on his own.

“It’s what he always wanted to do,” Albert said of Kevin.

Was he scared for his son?

“No, because I knew that he wasn’t scared,” Albert replied.

Kevin Krigger rarely has competed in big races, and usually has ridden far from the spotlight. But after climbing up the jockeys’ standings at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, he was contacted by Southern California-based jockey agent Tom Knust in December 2011 soon after Knust’s client Patrick Valenzuela said he was going to retire.

“He didn’t have too much hesitation,” Knust said.

Because the Southern California jockey colony has names such as Rafael Bejarano, Victor Espinoza, Martin Garcia, Garrett Gomez, Mike Smith, and Joe Talamo – and Gary Stevens is now back, too – it has been challenging for Krigger to make a significant impact. He did well at the recently concluded Santa Anita meeting, though, tying for ninth place with 25 wins.

But what enabled Krigger to get a choice mount like Goldencents was sheer hustle. Last summer, at Hollywood Park, he was out working horses when O’Neill gave him a chance to breeze Goldencents. Krigger and Knust lobbied hard to ride Goldencents in his debut race weeks later at Del Mar. Goldencents won, and Krigger has been aboard ever since.

“You can’t find ’em if you don’t come out early,” Krigger said. “It’s not like the owners are calling me to put me on their best ones. I’ve got to go out and search.”

For O’Neill and the owners of Goldencents, they’ve never wavered from Krigger’s corner, even after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the San Felipe, the race preceding the Santa Anita Derby. O’Neill blamed himself for the performance of Goldencents. The karma with Krigger was rock solid.

“Not only is he a good person,” O’Neill said, “but he has great hands and he has great chemistry with Goldencents.”