03/14/2013 11:55AM

Oaklawn: At 52, Court savors opportunity in Rebel

Coady Photography
Jon Court, winning aboard Will Take Charge in the Smarty Jones, returns to ride in Saturday's Rebel at Oaklawn.

Jon Court started the year riding one of the most exciting Kentucky Derby prospects in Lecomte winner Oxbow. But when Oxbow runs back Saturday in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, Court won’t be aboard. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has been given the mount, and Court will instead be on the horse’s stablemate Will Take Charge.

For most riders, losing a high-profile 3-year-old in the spring is a bitter pill to swallow. For Court, the situation is amplified. He is 52, and there are only so many more Kentucky Derbies left for him to chase.

By the same token, spending more than 30 years in the saddle has given Court perspective. He has experienced the disappointment of losing a big mount before, most notably Arkansas Derby winner Line of David before the 2010 Kentucky Derby, and long ago he decided to move past the losses and focus on what could develop with the rides he does have. This month alone he has much to look forward to, teaming with runners in three Kentucky Derby preps: the Rebel, the Spiral at Turfway Park, and the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

“Whether it be Oxbow or another horse, it can be frustrating to lose a mount and a lot of people push the issue about being upset,” Court said between races last Sunday at Oaklawn. “I take the attitude that I was very fortunate to swing a leg over a horse like that and taste the sweet success.”

Court is bidding to return to the Kentucky Derby for the third consecutive year. His first mount came in 2011 at age 50, aboard Archarcharch, the Arkansas Derby winner trained by his father-in-law, Jinks Fires. The horse finished 15th and was retired after coming out of the race with a leg injury. Court returned to the Derby last year and rode Optimizer to an 11th-place finish. With Court still aboard, Optimizer has won two graded stakes this year for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Lukas also trains Oxbow, Will Take Charge, and Court’s other upcoming 3-year-old mounts: Red Wings in the Spiral and Channel Isle in the Louisiana Derby. Lukas said Court is the type of rider needed for Will Take Charge, who won the Smarty Jones by a neck at Oaklawn in January. Court was aboard, and also rode Will Take Charge when he won a maiden special weight last fall at Keeneland.

“Will Take Charge, I think this horse is pretty genuine,” Lukas said. “I think we need somebody that will finish well on him. Jon does that. I just think we’ve got to have a rider that’s smart enough to put him in a position to run, to give him a chance at the top of the stretch.”

“Wayne knows his horses so well,” Court said. “We’ve done real well with Will Take Charge. He felt like I fit this horse, and rightfully, it’s his choice of riders, and I feel grateful to ride him in the upcoming races. He’s got tactical speed. He’s very competitive, and in the Smarty Jones he proved that he can finish. He was tenacious to the end.”

Court is a Florida native, the son of a contractor and nurse who grew up riding show horses. In college, Court studied an array a subjects, but fell just short of graduating, choosing to give up the academic life for the rush of riding racehorses. The dream of being a jockey was born in childhood, he said, and it was something he had seriously started to pursue at the age of 16. 

“When I was old enough to drive, I would start going out to the Thoroughbred farms and break yearlings,” Court said. “I loved it so much, I was even loping the pony horses.”

Court’s first win as a jockey came at Centennial in Colorado, on June 7, 1980. He would go on to win multiple riding titles at Ellis Park, Hoosier Park, and Kentucky Downs and has also won championships at Birmingham Race Course, Oaklawn, and Turfway.

But in 2004, Court left the Midwest to ride in Southern California, his base through 2009.

“I always wanted to compete on the Southern California circuit,” he said. “I made the move to try and expand my skills. It was to continue to move forward, mentally and physically; to sharpen my skills to become more of a polished rider.”

Court racked up a number of Grade 1 wins out west, among them the 2004 Citation and 2005 Kilroe with Leroidesanimaux; the 2006 La Brea with Downthedustyroad; the 2006 Bing Crosby with Pure as Gold; the 2006 Santa Margarita with Healthy Addiction; and the 2007 Citation with Lang Field.

Upon his return to this region, Court won back-to-back runnings of the Arkansas Derby, in 2010 with Line of David and 2011 with Archarcharch. Other notable mounts included Wise Dan, with whom Court captured the 2011 Firecracker; Fleetstreet Dancer, his 2003 Japan Cup Dirt winner; Cambiocorsa, a multiple Grade 3 winner in 2006; and Perfect Drift, with whom he won the 2002 Indiana Derby. Court also won the George Woolf Award in 2007.

Court continues to ride at a high level and remains the picture of health. In fact, Lukas said he sees Court’s age as an advantage rather than a detriment, explaining that more experienced riders can quickly size up races from the break. 

“It’s exactly like Peyton Manning,” Lukas said of the veteran NFL quarterback. “When the ball snaps, he reads the defense instantly. And the rookie that came in, has got all kinds of physical talent, is probably faster, can throw harder, is quicker than Peyton. But he doesn’t see the things that Peyton Manning sees every day. That’s the same thing with a rider.” 

Court also has several other factors working in his favor in what he calls his “golden years” in the saddle.

“Jon keeps himself fit,” said Fires, whose brother, Earlie Fires, rode to the age of 62. “He’s the right size. He doesn’t have to struggle with his weight like some riders do. That’s what happens with a lot of riders. They struggle with their weight so badly, they get to where they lose the interest in trying to ride.”

Court, listed in the Oaklawn condition book at 114 pounds, said dieting now comes easier, as does fitness.

“I stay active, and I don’t ‘over’ workout,” he said. “I learned that it’s something that’s incorporated into my life on a day to day basis. I love to actually hike, and sometimes carry a backpack with nothing in it but weights, something to give me a little resistance.” 

Court said keeping fresh by spending time with family has also served him well. He is married to Krystal, the daughter of Jinks Fires, and has four children.  

With 3,760 career wins and $89.3 million in mount earnings, Court has achieved more than enough to satisfactorily call it a career after 33 years in the saddle. But he has such a passion for competition that he says leaving the sport is not even a thought for him. The action of racing continues to drive him, as does the chase for the next big horse. 

“Retirement is not anything that’s even on my back-burner at this point in my life,” Court said. “I think I’m still riding at a competitive level, and I’m in a very good position to pursue goals. Ultimately, the goal of any rider is the [Kentucky] Derby, the Triple Crown series, the Breeders’ Cup. I have an opportunity to pursue that. It’s not necessarily at my beck and call, but I have the opportunity to pursue it if the mounts are in my path. It keeps it exciting. The day-to-day pursuit keeps you interested and motivated.”