Updated on 09/16/2011 8:04AM

The master of brain over brawn

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Jerry Bailey has achieved such a lofty status in his business that he can succeed without really trying. America's No. 1 jockey regularly rides the best horses for the best stables. His mounts are often heavy favorites. He would have a high win percentage and high earnings - the statistics by which jockeys are measured - even if he were riding poorly.

Accordingly, people in the sport watch Bailey closely and critically to assess if he is as good as his reputation. Before the Saratoga meeting, some wondered if the 44-year-old Bailey was slipping or coasting; he hadn't looked exceptional at Belmont Park. Gamblers thought there might be an edge in betting against short-priced Bailey mounts.

They quickly learned otherwise. Since Saratoga opened, Bailey has been demonstrating daily why he is the best in the game. He has not only won at an exceptional 26 percent rate while battling Edgar Prado for the jockey title, but has delivered one tactical masterpiece after another.

On the first weekend of the season, his ride aboard You in the Test Stakes immediately entered the pantheon of legendary Saratoga races. After a slow start and early traffic trouble, Bailey drove You through a narrow hole entering the stretch, then squeezed inside front-running Carson Hollow with inches to spare. The two fillies battled to the finish line and the naked eye couldn't discern the winner, but Bailey's mount had prevailed by a nostril.

Compared with that dramatic finish, Bailey's performance the next day on a maiden filly named Sightseek was pretty routine. But after breaking from the outside post position in a seven-horse field, he somehow managed to maneuver to the rail in a matter of strides. There he sat, perfectly placed, behind a speed duel; he eased out past one of the leaders and drew off to an easy victory. It made no headlines, but it was a tactically perfect ride.

Bailey primed himself to excel at Saratoga. "It's hard at my age to stay at the highest level of intensity year-round," he acknowledged. He said he gears up to that highest level at certain periods of the year - during the Triple Crown series; at the Saratoga meeting; and during the weeks leading up to the Breeders' Cup. At the other times of the year, he picks his spots and rides more sparingly, and he said: "It's very difficult to get into a groove when you're riding three horses one day, two the next. But here I'll ride claimers, and when I pick the pace up it's easier for me to stay in rhythm."

When Bailey is in this kind of rhythm, racing fans can readily recognize the reason for his success. Unlike other jockeys who are naturals endowed with great physical skills, Bailey was no prodigy; he passed the age of 30 before establishing himself at the top echelon of his profession. His edge is cerebral rather than physical; he studies races as diligently as a good handicapper does. And then he translates his understanding of a race into an effective ride.

In the Diana Handicap at Saratoga, he rode Tates Creek to a victory over Voodoo Dancer, and when he discussed the ride recently, he made it clear how much thought had gone into it.

"I knew I had to beat Voodoo Dancer - she had better numbers [speed figures] than Tates Creek," Bailey said. "I thought I had to get the jump on her. We broke well, we got position into the first turn and I was inside Voodoo Dancer. Then I had to find a way to get through [to the lead]. I had to do this before Voodoo Dancer got to me - and do all this knowing that Tates Creek has a very short run so you can't ask too much of her. I made every decision right," and the result was a win by a nostril.

When Bailey maneuvers a horse into perfect position - as in the victories of Tates Creek and Sightseek - he gives the impression that he has written a script for the race and is following it to the letter. Of course, that is impossible because too many unpredictable events happen during a race. But Bailey nevertheless prepares extensively. He said he comes to the track at 8 a.m. and studies the Daily Racing Form for a half-hour, then reviews all the races again when he returns to the track at noon. He understands the pace of every race and when he talks to the trainer in the paddock he might say, "The 2, 7, and 8 have speed; I'll lay third or fourth."

Regardless of how close to the lead he is, Bailey always wants to be close to the rail. He said, "I always go with the intention of saving ground here" - something he considers especially important on the Saratoga turf. He will try to anticipate how he might get to the rail. If he is breaking from post 8 in a turf race, he will assess the quickness of the horses inside him: "I'll see who I can beat to the punch to the first turn."

Of course, all jockeys understand the importance of saving ground, but when others try to accelerate on the rail, they frequently get blocked or shut off. Bailey almost invariably finds running room. His rivals don't seem to pay special attention to him, let alone try to knock him over the fence in order to teach him a lesson. A jockey agent here observed: "It's as if Bailey has a divine right to get through on the rail. This jockey colony is much too deferential to him." Bailey insisted this is not the case: "I don't have a free rail pass."

Bailey always tries to seize a tactical advantage, even when he might not need to. When he rode the odds-on favorite Medaglia d'Oro in the Jim Dandy Stakes, he probably could have won the race in any number of ways. But after perceiving that the Saratoga racing strip that day had a strong bias favoring front-runners on the rail, he hustled Medaglia d'Oro to the rail, took the lead and blew away the field by more than a dozen lengths. It's hard to beat a jockey who outthinks the opposition and has the best horse, too.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post Company