09/13/2012 11:57AM

Q&A: Craig Perret, Derby and Belmont-winning jockey

Barbara D. Livingston
Craig Perret in 1989 on Safely Kept, one of the best horses he rode in his career.

Craig Perret, one of the most successful jockeys of his generation, has been scarce from the racing scene since riding his last race, Nov. 25, 2005, at Churchill Downs. He ranks 43rd all time among North American jockeys with 4,415 wins from 27,164 rides, and had mount earnings of nearly $114 million. His greatest wins came aboard Unbridled in the 1990 Kentucky Derby for Carl Nafzger, Bet Twice in the 1987 Belmont Stakes for his late friend Jimmy Croll, and four Breeders’ Cup races. A New Orleans native, he began riding Quarter Horses at age 10. Perret lives in a rented house on a 400-acre farm just east of Louisville in Shelbyville, Ky.

Age: 61

Family: divorced; two children; six grandchildren

You pretty much disappeared there for a while. Where have you been and what have you been doing? I’ve been here in Shelbyville working with [trainer[ Dan Sanner on his 14-acre farm [Spring Meadows] just a couple of miles from where I live. We go buy four or five babies every year, and I break them for him, help raise them and get them to the sales, take them over to High Pointe [training center] and get them ready. It’s a lot of fun for me, keeps me involved in the game I love. We’ve had a strike rate of about 22 percent [winners].

I’ve been involved in breeding and pinhooking, even before I quit riding. Always had a couple of mares and some babies to fool with. I love horses, especially the young ones. They’re like kids going to school, and I’m their teacher. Been around horses my whole life and always will be. My love is always about the horses. They gave me the glory, and I want to return back to them.

I’ve also been busy trying to market a product called “Ultimate Fly Veil,” and it really does the job [keeping flies from bothering horses]. I’ve taken it to some of the farms like WinStar and Lane’s End, and they really seem to like it. I’ve also gone to Old Friends to visit some of the horses I used to ride, and I donated 40 of the veils to them. We’ve got a website for it.

You went to jail in Shelby County for a four-month period in 2005-06 after being convicted on a fourth DUI violation. Since then, you haven’t been on the racing pages at all. Yeah, I made a couple of bad choices there. I’d been going through a divorce, and things were pretty rough for me. It was nobody’s fault but my own. After the last one, they told me I could fight it and maybe wind up doing three years, or I could do the 120 days right now. I bit that bullet, said let’s go, I’ll do the time standing on my head if I have to. It was crazy. I was in there thinking, “You don’t belong here,” but honestly, you could also say I did belong there. I was embarrassed for myself, my family, for the industry. But that’s all over with. It’s like I told a couple of friends: You’ve got to brush it off and straighten it up. That’s all you can do.

You look like you could ride a race today. How much do you weigh? I’m about 116 right now. Since I quit in 2005, I’ve gained about three pounds. I’m a worker. I’ve always been very active. I just can’t sit around and do nothing. When I’m in those big steel gates, that’s when I’m in my element. That’s my domain. If I’m talking to a doctor or somebody and the conversation gets into “Do this, do that,” I get a little lost. I’m all about being with the horses and getting things done. Some days I’ll roll up 100 bales of hay.

You never officially announced your retirement. Would you like to come back for one last ride at one of your favorite tracks? I hadn’t really thought of that, but I have thought about maybe being invited to one of those old-timer deals where everybody gets together and talks about the good times. That’d be nice.

Do you keep up with what’s happening in racing? Mostly with the younger horses. By the time they’re past 3, it seems like the good ones are all gone into retirement nowadays. Yeah, I’ll watch TVG, maybe play a little exacta once in a while. Takes me back to when I was a kid walking hots in Louisiana, and I’d walk over and play the double. I’m a racetracker, man. It’s who I am and what I do. I love the lingo, the people, the lifestyle, everything about it.

Your credentials seem worthy of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, and yet you’ve only made the nominees list one time (2006). Your thoughts? I guess it’s been an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of thing. Look, I’ve been extremely blessed in this game, won some awards that mean the world to me – the Eclipse Award [1990] and the George Woolf Award [1998]. The Woolf – that’s your peers, and that means so much. I’m in the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in my home state. I won pretty much all the big races. I’ve done all I can do. Of course people say to me, “You should be in the Hall of Fame,” but what can I do about it? Do I need to be in there? No. But would I like to be in there? Sure, it’d be lovely.

Best horses ridden? You don’t have enough ink in your pen. There were so many: Unbridled, Housebuster, Eillo, Fast Hilarious, Strike the Gold, Smoke Glacken, Royal Glint, Safely Kept, Honest Pleasure, Winning Colors, Cherokee Run, Optimistic Gal. I could go on a lot longer. I was unbelievably fortunate to have the opportunity to ride as many great horses as I did.

Your all-time favorite? That’d have to be Unbridled. He made a dream come true for a kid who never really even dared to have that dream.