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Paddock talk: the art of giving prerace instructions
In the dead of winter, Angel Cordero had been named to ride a 5-year-old maiden at the icebox that is Aqueduct. He really wanted no part of this horse and had turned down the mount several times, but his late wife, Marjorie, was a friend of the trainer, who had a one-horse stable, and she persisted. Finally, Cordero caved in and did his wife the favor.
In telling the story, Cordero couldn’t remember the name of the horse or the trainer. But he sure remembered the day.
Fifteen minutes before the race, Cordero went to the paddock to meet his mount for the first time.
“Don’t take him back, because he won’t close,” the trainer said.
“Don’t put him on the lead, because he’ll lose interest if you do that,” the trainer said.
Cordero nodded again.
“Don’t chirp to him, he doesn’t like that,” the trainer said.
In his mind, Cordero questioned why he was even there.
“Don’t yell at him, he’ll prop if you do that,” the trainer said. “And one last thing: Don’t hit him, he doesn’t like that, either.”
Cordero looked at her quizzically and said: “What do you want me to do?”
“There’s one thing,” she said. “If you yell to him, ‘Go, Sparky, go!” he’ll pick it up.”
“Go, Sparky, go?” Cordero said. “OK.”
As the horse, with Cordero aboard, left the walking ring, the trainer shouted: “They’re going to blindfold him to get him in the gate.”
Cordero thought to himself: “If this horse doesn’t flip in the gate, I’ll be one lucky Puerto Rican.”
They ran the race, and heading into the stretch Cordero’s horse was actually in contention. Forgetting the trainer’s prerace advisory, he chirped to his mount. The horse started to pull himself up.
The race was still theirs to be won, and Cordero felt that he had to do something, so he hit the horse twice with his whip. His mount pinned his ears back and looked like he might stop.
“What the hell,” Cordero said to himself. He started yelling, “Go, Sparky, go!” several times.
The horse took off, made a valiant bid at the wire, and got beat by only a nose.
“How’s that for instructions? [Richard] Migliore still thinks that’s a very funny story,” he said, referring to the retired jockey. “He keeps reminding me about it.”
I had called Cordero, John Velazquez’s agent, for a story about trainers and jockeys and the brief exchanges they have in the paddock just minutes before races. I really wanted to talk to Velazquez, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s never hello and goodbye with Cordero. He made the transition from jockey to trainer for a time and was known as someone who gave his riders beaucoup information in the paddock.
“But that was different,” Cordero said. “Number one, I still got on the horses in the mornings, and I knew a lot of their tendencies first-hand. But with many riders, you don’t have to tell them much, because they will have done their homework. I’m talking about guys like Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron, Richard Migliore, Jose Santos, those kind of guys. All you have to do is give them a fit horse and let them take over.”
Bailey, now a TV commentator, was told about Cordero and “Go, Sparky, go!” and he said it reminded him of some paddock stories of his own.
“One is sort of the opposite of Cordero’s,” Bailey said. “I was to ride what her trainer called a headstrong filly. She told me just before the race that if I sang ‘Jingle Bells’ to the filly, that would have a calming effect. So about halfway down the backstretch, I broke out in a chorus of my best ‘Jingle Bells.’ The filly stopped, and we lost by about 12 lengths.”
Some jockeys can sing, some can’t.
In 1996, Bailey was riding Boston Harbor for trainer Wayne Lukas in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Woodbine.
In the paddock, Lukas said to him, “I want you to ride this horse like Donna Barton the first half of the race, and like Jerry Bailey the second half.”
Bailey had no idea what that meant and didn’t ask. Whatever he did, it must have been right; Boston Harbor won by a neck and was voted an Eclipse Award.
When Bailey rode the longshot Arcangues in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic, it was a language barrier, not esoteric prerace advice, that confused him. Arcangues, who was 133-1, came with trainer Andre Fabre from France as a no-hoper: He had never run on dirt; he had won only one race all year; lifetime, he was 4 for 15; and his career had been compromised by chronic back problems.
Bailey wasn’t even the first choice to ride Arcangues. Fabre wanted an American jockey, someone more familiar with dirt courses, but his first choice, Mike Smith, preferred to ride Devil His Due, who would finish eighth.
The Arcangues assignment fell to Bailey, who couldn’t find Fabre when he arrived in the crowded paddock at Santa Anita. Arcangues’s groom attempted to tell Bailey something about the horse, but his English was limited. Time ran out, and Bailey was boosted onto Arcangues’s back. As they left the walking ring, headed for the post parade, Fabre caught up and shouted out in perfect English: “Don’t over-ride him.” Then Arcangues and Bailey were off to the races.
Arcangues came from behind, overcame traffic problems, and paid $269.20 for $2, still a record win payoff for the Breeders’ Cup.
“Some horses get ridden to death by riders who are riding them for the first time,” Bailey said later. “You don’t want to force your will on them. This horse surprised me. He had to split horses when the going got tough, and I didn’t think he’d show that kind of courage the first time he ever saw dirt.”
Legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham once said he felt prerace instructions were usually poppycock.
“The really good jockeys will ignore you, because they know it all and will do what they want,” he said. “The rest of them, they’re not good enough to carry out what you might tell them, anyway.”
Another deceased Hall of Fame trainer, Bobby Frankel, did not suffer gladly jockeys who he thought gave him poor rides. It was not uncommon for Frankel to question a ride in blistering terms. One day a jockey tried to defend himself in the heat of the aftermath.
“Well, if you wanted me to do that, why didn’t you tell me beforehand?” the rider said.
“Because you’re supposed to know that,” Frankel said before storming off.
Lukas said prerace instructions are tricky.
“Sometimes you can say too much, sometimes you might say too little,” he said. “The jockeys you ride at the major tracks − Belmont, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Saratoga, and the like − are going to be more prepared, by and large, and you don’t have to tell them too much. Sometimes races are won or lost because of split-second decisions, and there’s nothing you can tell jockeys beforehand that will prepare them for that. It’s the little things that can be helpful if a rider isn’t familiar with a horse, such as a horse not liking a left-handed whip, or a horse that likes to run outside instead of inside other horses.”
Lukas said jockeys almost always need help before the Belmont Stakes, a race he has won four times.
“If you’re using a rider from out of town, it’s likely he hasn’t ridden at Belmont Park that much,” Lukas said. “We’re talking about the only mile-and-a-half oval in the country, and one of the few races as long as a mile and a half. One of the mistakes they make is making their move at the five-eighths pole instead of waiting for the three-eighths. So I tell them, ‘When you get to the five-eighths, wait another quarter of a mile.’ Before Pat Day won the Belmont with Commendable, I told him to sit as long as he could on the horse.”
Lukas also has four Kentucky Derby wins. Before a race like that, he said, he won’t wait until he gets to the paddock.
“I’ll go down to the jockeys’ room about the first or second race, when they have a breather, and we’ll go over the details,” he said. “But the year we won with Grindstone [in 1996], it didn’t make any difference. He and Jerry Bailey must have been 15th going down the backside. I had told Jerry to follow Prince of Thieves and Pat Day in the early going. The next day, Jerry said to me, ‘Wayne, we got shuffled so far back early that I couldn’t even see Prince of Thieves.’ ”
Lukas said the most instructions he ever gave before a race came in the 2002 Derby. He was running Proud Citizen, a 23-1 shot ridden by Mike Smith.
“I hammered away at Mike in the paddock,” Lukas said. “I told him we were running a short horse, but he still might be able to get a piece [of the purse]. But I said that if he battled War Emblem for the lead, we’d be nowhere. I told him to disregard War Emblem. I said that if he chased War Emblem, we’d have no chance.”
Proud Citizen finished second to War Emblem and earned $170,000.
I asked Mike Smith about the first time he rode Zenyatta. Did her trainer, John Shirreffs, tell him anything special?
“This isn’t going to fill up much of your story,” Smith said. “He didn’t tell me anything, except that she didn’t have any quickness and wouldn’t be in the race early. We all found out, sooner or later, how true that was, didn’t we?
Smith said trainer Jimmy Croll was the same way and didn’t have many instructions before a race, even on the day of the 1994 Kentucky Derby, in which his Holy Bull finished 12th as the favorite under Smith.
“The day of the Derby, Jimmy didn’t say a word,” he said. “But he knew that I knew the horse. I was the only rider Holy Bull ever had.”
Smith remembers a race, but not the name of the horse, that he rode for trainer Michael Dickinson.
“This was a horse that had a lot of speed, blazing speed, and had been sprinting,” Smith said. “Now he was going a mile and an eighth, and on the grass. Before the race, Michael said to me, ‘Put an anchor on him out of the gate, or we’ll never win.’ ”
Smith had studied the past performances of the horse, who was usually on the lead or close to the front.
“You’re kidding me,” he said to Dickinson.
“No, that’s the way we’ve been working him in the mornings,” Dickinson said. “He’ll relax for you, believe me.”
“We won by 10,” Smith said.
He was asked how a jockey “anchors” a horse.
“You’ve got to take a hold,” he said. “But you don’t want to get in a horse’s mouth [with the bit]. That’s the one thing you don’t want to do.”
Like almost all jockeys, Smith and Garrett Gomez both study Daily Racing Form’s past performances the mornings of their races, but neither makes many notations on the page that might help them later. Gomez said he keeps most of his notes in his head.
I remember being in the Hollywood Park jockeys’ room one day, between races, and happened to pass by Chris McCarron’s cubicle. He had two pages of past performances spread out on a bench in front of him. There were so many chicken scratchings and notations that you could hardly see the newspaper’s ink on the page.
“Chris Antley was also like that,” said Ron Anderson, who is the agent for Gomez and worked for Bailey and the late Antley in the past. “He would break down the Form and use color-coded markers that only he could understand. You looked at his Racing Form, and it looked some little kid had come along with his coloring set. And these guys don’t just go into a race with a plan. They have a second and third plan in case something happens to the original plan.”
McCarron won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics with Tiznow in 2000-01.
“He was the most prepared rider I ever saw,” said Jay Robbins, who trained Tiznow. “He always did his homework. He’d carry a small book around with him to write down the tendencies of horses that he was going to ride.”
During his long career, Bailey said he never saw a trainer who defined a horse better than Todd Pletcher.
“You’d spend 30 seconds in the paddock with Todd, and he’d tell you everything you needed to know about a new horse,” Bailey said.
By the same token, Bailey said many paddock confabs are overrated, saying they can be more like socializing events with horse owners than anything else.
Trainer Nick Zito, who prefers a lot of quality time in the paddock with his jockeys, said he disagrees, to an extent.
“It’s important that you give a jockey some ideas about a horse,” Zito said. “If you’re close to riders, if you ride them a lot, that helps. Some jockeys, you’ll find, are not keen on getting instructions. They have their own ideas. But the complaint I have is getting the jockeys into the paddock for a sufficient amount of time so I can talk to them.
“No matter where [my horses] go, it’s the same thing,” he said. “Saratoga, Florida, it doesn’t make any difference. They don’t get to the paddock soon enough, in my judgment. They come running out of that [jockeys’ room] at the last minute. I’ve gone to management, asking them to improve on this, and I get deaf ears. And even if you don’t have a lot to say about the race to the rider, how about the owners, especially the new owners? One of the thrills for them is meeting the jockeys. But how can a guy do that when they come running out of the room at the last minute?”
What Zito wants to guard against most with jockeys is an arbitrary attempt to change the style of the horse. At this year’s Kentucky Derby, Zito and his jockey, Jose Lezcano, were on the same page with Ice Box, who had won the Florida Derby with Lezcano aboard.
“It’s in the category of how instructions can backfire,” Zito said. “Ice Box didn’t have any early speed, and he drew an inside post on top of that. I told Jose that the only way we were going to win the race was to go around horses.”
From 19th place in a 20-horse field, Ice Box rallied to finish second to Super Saver, but Zito’s prerace plan had quickly gone out the window.
“What happened?” he asked Lezcano after the race.
“When I looked up,” Lezcano said, “there were 15 horses in front of me. There was no way I was going to be able to go around all of them.”
The recently deceased Mack Miller used Bailey as a rider on many occasions, including the 1993 Derby, in which they won with Sea Hero.
“Mack was like a second father to me, a wonderful man,” Bailey said. “He had the same, basic instruction for almost all his horses: Take back and circle the field. And it was a good idea to do what he said if you wanted to stay with the barn. But after I won the Derby, by splitting horses with Sea Hero, he said to me, ‘Do whatever you want from now on.’ ”
The subtleties of restraining a horse at the start were not lost on Bailey.
“You can’t use force,” he said. “You have to take a hold low on his neck, and send a message to the horse with your hands. Garrett Gomez is the best at turning a horse off as I’ve ever seen. Julie Krone was also very good at that. She and Bill Shoemaker had similar styles in doing that. Because of a horse’s natural inclinations, it’s a lot easier to send one out of the gate than it is to take one back.”
Gomez’s narrow win aboard Blame over Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year came with a horse who liked to run with the middle of the pack.
“The most important thing is to be on the same page as the trainer,” Gomez said. “Different trainers, different styles. A Bill Mott horse won’t have the same style as a Christophe Clement horse, for example. Some horses, you just have to let them do what they do best. I had a lot of luck with this Bobby Frankel horse, Skimming, especially at Del Mar, and he was intent on going fast. His style was always come-and-catch-me, and you didn’t want to get in the way of that.”
Gomez, known as one of the better-prepared riders, said he doesn’t get many instructions from trainers before races these days.
“But five years ago, trainers used to tell me a lot,” he said. “Trainers learn to adjust to riders as the riders gain in experience.”
Trainer Bob Baffert described Gomez’s ride on Lookin At Lucky in last year’s Santa Anita Derby as “horrendous,” but he blamed himself afterward. Lookin At Lucky finished third as the 4-5 favorite, beaten by six lengths.
“I didn’t like where the horse was the first 100 yards,” Baffert said after the race, “but I should have told Garrett exactly what to do. I just left it up to him, and I messed up.”
Said Gomez: “When we wound up on the inside, Bob knew we were in a jackpot, but I still thought I could find a way. It just didn’t work out.”
Gomez kept the mount on Lookin At Lucky in the Kentucky Derby, where the No. 1 post position compromised his chances and he finished sixth. Gomez never rode Lookin At Lucky again.
Bailey once rode a horse for trainer Rick Dutrow at Saratoga who made the lead at the eighth pole, then pulled himself up and lost the race.
“I had never ridden the horse and didn’t know he was likely to do that,” Bailey said. “Afterwards, I said to [Dutrow] that those are the kinds of things I want to hear.”
Jockey John Velazquez said that knowing how the track is playing is important as each race card develops.
“There is no way somebody sitting in the stands, including many trainers, are going to be picking up on that,” he said. “But the jockeys will know. So prerace strategy can often depend on that.”
But there are always the trainers who take the prerace strategy too far. Trainer Art Sherman, a former jockey, was interviewed for an upcoming feature-length documentary entitled “The Last Train From Bay Meadows.”
“When I was riding, I had this trainer who showed up in the paddock with a piece of paper,” Sherman said. “He had actually written out where the horse should be every step of the way − the half-mile pole, et cetera. All the way around, he had it written down. I looked at him like he was nuts. I said to him, ‘How in the world can you expect me to ride a horse with a map?’ ”