05/04/2011 1:11PM

Kentucky Derby ride a long time coming for Court

Barbara D. Livingston
Jon Court will ride in the Kentucky Derby for the first time in his 30-year career. He has the mount on Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jockey Kent Desormeaux said that when he crossed under the wire to win the Kentucky Derby aboard Real Quiet in 1998 “my life flashed before my eyes.”

Jon Court hasn’t even ridden in his first Kentucky Derby, and his life is already flashing before his eyes. Court, 50, has spent a whole lot of time reviewing his life and 30-year career as a jockey as he has prepared to make his Derby debut Saturday at Churchill Downs aboard Archarcharch for his father-in-law, trainer William “Jinks” Fires.

“It’s gotten a little repetitive, going through everything,” Court said, “but of course it’s all worth it. I’ve ridden in the Preakness, the Belmont, the Breeders’ Cup, but this is the ultimate. The Kentucky Derby really is the greatest two minutes in sports, and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”

Articulate, earnest, and quick with a smile, Court has endured a number of painful episodes, both emotional and physical, in reaching racing’s summit. Both of his brothers have died since he first left his native Florida to begin riding racehorses at age 20, and he has broken more than 30 bones in various spills and accidents.

On several occasions, Court thought he might be getting a Derby mount, only to be disappointed. Last year, he won the Arkansas Derby aboard Line of David and hoped he would get to ride the colt back at Churchill, but a switch was made to a younger jockey, Rafael Bejarano. Line of David faded badly to finish 18th.

“Those things happen in this game all the time,” Court said. “I saw it happen to Hall of Fame jockeys like Pat Day, to Jerry Bailey. I did think there was a possibility I was going to get to ride the Derby. It really didn’t bother me as much as it did some others, although I will admit that it was a pretty good sting. Not a mosquito sting, more like a wasp sting.”

Fires, 70, is all too happy to be the trainer to give Court his first Derby ride. “I’m tickled to death for Jon,” he said. “All those years trying to get there, and now here we are together. Last year was tough on him, but hopefully, we can more than make up for it Saturday.”

Court said the pain of having Derby mounts slip away was nothing compared to losing his younger brother, Jay, “when I was just six months into my apprenticeship,” and his older brother, Jim, several years ago. Both were struck and killed by automobiles, Jay as a pedestrian, Jim as a cycling enthusiast.

As young as Jon was, Jay’s death was a particularly tough blow. “I really struggled with that for many a year, maybe five or more,” Court said. “But I finally got some things going and eventually learned about acceptance.”

Court’s father died in the interim, leaving his mother and sister, who both live in Melbourne, Fla. Court has three children from his previous marriage, and all will be here Saturday, along with his wife, Krystal (Fires’s daughter), and their 7-year-old daughter, Aubrey.

“My older kids are going to be in a box down by the [paddock] tunnel,” Court said. “I think they’re more excited and nervous than I am.”

Court has ridden more than 3,500 winners and has been the leading rider at a number of tracks, starting with the 1987 title at the long defunct Birmingham Turf Club in Alabama. Coincidentally, Birmingham was the first full-time announcing job for a young Larry Collmus, who Saturday will call his first Derby for millions of viewers on NBC. What are the odds that, nearly a quarter-century later, Collmus will be calling Court on the winner of the Kentucky Derby?

“It’d be something,” Court said. “Heck, I’ve ridden all across the country and in countries like Dubai and Japan. I’ve met a lot of truly great people. All things considered, this game’s been absolutely wonderful to me.”

For the first half of his career, Court was most closely identified with Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn Park. In May 1994, during opening week at Louisiana Downs, he went down in a terrifying heap, suffering a broken right knee and a cracked hip and ribs, among other injuries. He was out a year and a half.

“It was a horrid experience,” he said. “One time I showed Krystal the tape of that race, and she said, ‘I don’t ever want to see that again.’ ”

Court eventually made a successful return while also switching his base of operations to Kentucky, where he made a good living while riding here most of every year. He became the perennial leading rider at Hoosier Park and Ellis Park and had steady success at Churchill and other area tracks.

In late 2003, the Courts moved to Southern California, where Jon competed for five years in what is widely regarded as one of the toughest riding colonies in the world. In both 2005 and 2006, his mount earnings totaled more than $7.2 million, representing the peak of his career. Before he left in early 2009, he had a role on the popular but short-lived “Jockeys” reality show on the Animal Planet network.

“I always wanted to go to California,” Court said. “There were so many rewarding things to that entire experience.”

Court concedes that he probably doesn’t have the flash that more nationally known riders bring to the table, nor is youth on his side any longer. Still, he has bridged the gaps in talent and notoriety by working hard and leading an exemplary lifestyle, avoiding trouble and controversy at every one of his many stops.

“I love being 50,” he said. “People want to stigmatize it, but I feel as good as I ever have.”

Archarcharch was 25-1 when he gave Court his second straight Arkansas Derby victory April 16. To win again Saturday, “you need a clean break, you need a clean trip that first quarter-mile, a smooth transition from there,” he said. “You don’t want to lose a lot of ground if you can help it. To execute that strategy, it’s imperative that things fall your way and you make the right decisions at the right time.”

Sounds simple enough. To actually pull it off, of course, is something different, although Court’s vast experience could certainly be of help.

“Jon has ridden a career here,” said Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner. “Once those doors open, it’ll be just another race for him. He’ll have butterflies, but we all do. To me, the question is, how do you deal with the butterflies, and him being the veteran he is, I’m sure he’ll immerse himself in the race and shut out all the distractions.”

Even for routine morning gallops during Derby week, Court has been getting aboard Archarcharch for Fires, an often mundane task typically reserved for an exercise rider. But Court has been reveling in the Derby atmosphere as his long-awaited date with destiny approaches. He even has taken it upon himself to take the yellow, custom-lettered Derby saddletowel home with him every night to launder it for the next morning.

“Sometimes I double-wash it, use Shout or Oxyclean on it,” he said with a grin. “I want it to be pristine. I just want everything to be perfect this week. We’ve never gone down this road, and I want to savor it as much as possible.”