Updated on 09/17/2011 12:10PM

Rider insider, from Baze to Valenzuela


The Southern California jockey colony took quite a few hits in recent seasons with the successive retirements of Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Laffit Pincay Jr., and the reduced participation of part-time actor Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux, who spent many months riding in the Far East.

As we get set for the opening of Santa Anita, the gaping holes are being partially filled by Hall of Famers Julie Krone and Mike Smith and possible Hall of Famer Patrick Valenzuela, plus a pair of vastly improved riders, Tyler Baze and Jose Valdivia Jr.

Valenzuela comes into Santa Anita fresh off winning the jockey championship at Hollywood Park, giving him the title at all five major Southern California meets this year. Krone comes in with two broken ribs, but is expected to sit out only until early or mid-January.

Eastern transplant Ryan Fogelsonger also has moved west at a propitious time, while Stevens and Desormeaux are back to join regular stalwarts Alex Solis, Victor Espinoza, David Flores, and Martin Pedroza. Given these changes, it seems timely to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of riders on the Southern Cal circuit. Indeed, I strongly recommend such assessments for every circuit, with a special eye out for a handful of key points.

* Ability to get a horse out of the gate quickly and in a straight path.

* Tendency to find a "good trip" even from a difficult post, or pace scenario.

* Apparent awareness of pace, especially in distance races.

* Willingness to ride inside, or a decided preference for a wide, safe trip.

* Finishing ability, with or without the whip.

* Specialties, such as turf, sprints, routes, wet tracks, etc.

It is important to know when your horse is being ridden by someone that suits his running style or when the opposite is true.

Tyler Baze: Apprentice winner from 2000 has always been good on speed types, but improved his game in 2003. Is much stronger tactically with inside rides and is better on turf as well. Very popular with many trainers and gets in the top three often, but still needs to avoid losing races he is in position to win. Good connections with Doug O'Neill, Barry Abrams, and Rafael Becerra.

Omar Berrio: Low-profile rider prefers outside posts and clicks well with speed types, especially those trained by A.C. Avila.

Kent Desormeaux: Strong finisher with excellent sense of pace is very streaky, with periods of inexplicable performances matched by many brilliant days on horseback. At his very best on the grass with confirmed stretch-running types. Good connection with Neil Drysdale.

Victor Espinoza: Versatile, high-quality performer rides any track surface, any distance with near equal strength. At his very best on experienced front-runners and near-the-pace types, especially in route stakes. Top trainers tend to use him for a while and then back off in favor of the flavor of the month.

Tony Farina: European rider has been regular jockey for former French-based trainer Patrick Biancone. Breaks well from the gate, good on grass, handles high caliber stakes pressure, but needs to improve his finishing technique.

David Flores: Generally reliable and versatile rider has not been at his best in recent months, losing some races he might have won. But, every rider goes through down cycles and Flores can recover top form quickly at his favorite track. Breaks superbly, judges pace well, handles all racing conditions, all distances, all surfaces, and is among the best in the country with stalking types in sprints.

Ryan Fogelsonger: Apprentice Eclipse winner in 2002 has improved his ability to break from the gate since arriving in early September. Strong finisher is good on the grass, even though he tends to take the overland route. Young, extremely energetic, a hard worker, he is certain to expand his game with experience.

Kerwin John: Newcomer from the Caribbean has looked good finishing with either hand in limited engagements. Worth watching during early stages of the meet.

Julie Krone: Can't say enough about her performance since arriving in Southern California after three-year absence and an injury that set her back several months. The most reliable, most versatile jockey on the grounds. Rides inside or out, from off, or on the pace, short, long, dirt or turf. Is especially gifted waking up horses that may have been running below their best form. Finishes very well with and without using the whip. Was injured in tumbling, hard spill at Hollywood on Dec. 12 and once again needs some recuperation time. But she is sure to be a major factor when she resumes riding. Good connections with Richard Mandella, Jeff Mullins, and Bob Baffert.

Felipe Martinez: Low-profile, low-percentage rider is very good from the starting gate. Useful on speedballs in sprints, especially main track sprints.

Corey Nakatani: Above average in most situations and somewhat streaky, but does ride inside without fear and is very good in short sprints and better than that on grass at any distance. Needs more opportunities to reclaim his status among the top riders on this circuit.

David Neusch: Low-profile, versatile rider from northern California fairs has talent to succeed here. Good out of the gate and so far has shown that he can handle the pressure. Worth watching for value on underrated contenders.

Frank Olivares: Once-retired jockey was training horses with minimal success until he returned to the saddle earlier this year. Finishes well, prefers overland route, but has had success with horses he used to train, scoring with several longshots in first or second outing for new handlers.

Martin Pedroza: Very fast from the gate and for most of his career a one-dimensional, front-running rider who rarely fit off-the-pace types. In recent months however, Pedroza has shown more dimension to his game and may be taking advantage of the increased opportunities due to the retirements and absences of the previously mentioned top-notch riders. Will be interesting to see if he can continue to win at or close to 20 percent during the Santa Anita meet. Strong connection with Nick Canani.

Iggy Puglisi: Low-profile rider wins about 10 percent from moderate opportunities. Prefers sprints and outer lanes. Good connections with Gary Stute and Bob Hess Jr.

Eric Saint-Martin: French-born import had some success here a few years back and has returned for more. Was good with stretch runners on the grass in his first American stint, which is the usual profile for foreign-based riders. Otherwise, must watch closely.

Mike Smith: Newly inducted Hall of Famer has done well enough to get many good mounts since arriving on the circuit two years ago. Very good on speed types and stalkers and does finish well. Seems comfortable in all situations, but occasionally fails to take an aggressive tack with horses that have to overcome a post position predicament or a competitive pace.

Alex Solis: Probably the most underrated top-class rider in the country. Versatile in every way, tactically smart, rides inside and out, dirt or turf. Very solid and seldom has a bad streak. A probable Hall of Famer, has good connections with many, including Ron McAnally, Jenine Sahadi, and Mel and Warren Stute.

Gary Stevens: Tactically strong and handles any riding situation when at peak form. Has arthritic knees that limit his ability to take many mounts, but his fearless disposition and considerable stakes experience are valuable assets on good horses in important spots, including expensive maidens in their career debuts. Strong connections for major stakes engagements, including Drysdale, Baffert, and D. Wayne Lukas.

Jose Valdivia Jr.: Young, improving, versatile rider with strong gate-breaking ability, has turned in some of his best performances in stakes and is getting more assignments from locally based trainers in out of town engagements. Great on the grass course, good connections with Ron Ellis and Craig Lewis.

Patrick Valenzuela: The gold standard in Southern California right now. Has made remarkable comeback after many interruptions to his Hall of Fame-caliber career due to drug problems. Strong front-running rider is equally adept with stalkers and tactically brilliant on the grass. Attracts considerable betting action on most mounts, and is noticeably better than all but Julie Krone and Alex Solis. Strong connections with many, including Bobby Frankel, Baffert, Drysdale, and Mike Mitchell.