02/10/2009 12:00AM

Riders put on real reality show

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For those who enjoyed the first installment of the reality show "Jockeys" that aired last Friday night on Animal Planet - complete with thrills, spills, and artificial plot lines - wait until you get a load of the one they got on Saturday.

What's that? No cameras rolling?

"Too bad they're not," said Mike Smith, one of the stars of "Jockeys." "This is some good stuff."

It was, and not a fake fan or a tumbling racehorse or a tricked-up Trevor Denman call in the mix. This is not a criticism of the genre. Reality shows have become part of the TV viewing culture, providing the connective social tissue once nourished by weekly installments of "Dynasty" and "Twin Peaks." In the end, the gaping chasm between "reality" and reality shows - or docu-soaps, in the parlance of the biz - is pretty well defined by the realization that there is a job description called "reality show writer." For real.

The fact that the "Jockeys" crew packed up and headed for the editing room long ago is their loss. The show goes on. Here's what they missed last Saturday:

* A tour de force by "Jockeys" designated black hat Garrett Gomez, who won four races and went home at the end of the day convinced he has a possible Kentucky Derby colt on the rise, named Pioneerof the Nile, winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes for Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert.

"I liked the way he did it," Gomez said. "He overcame some adversity. I work him all the time, and he even surprised me the way he went and got those leaders, when they were sprinting off the turn."

* A sentimental nightcap featuring "Jockeys" regulars Kayla Stra, the struggling rookie, and Alex Solis, the old gunfighter looking for one last hurrah. Stra, at 24-1, lost the race in the final yards to Solis, who turned in one of his typically powerful finishes. When they crossed paths back at the jocks' room entrance, Stra was ready to feel a little sorry for herself, then Solis pretended to be exhausted from his efforts. Stra knows full well there is no jockey more physically fit than Solis. Still, she appreciated the gesture.

"Aw," she said, squeezing his arm, "I don't feel so bad now."

* And then there was the high-speed domestic spat between romantic co-habitants Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland in the wake of the $250,000 Strub Stakes.

Smith, of course, knew the job was dangerous when he took it. "Jockeys," that is. All day Saturday he was razzed about scenes from the opening episodes, most of them having to do with sharing closet space. Smith, who rides with metal in his spine, has faced worse, and there is no one who better communicates the physical and emotional sacrifices of the job.

Anyway, he could have started and ended the day with his stylish victory aboard champion filly Stardom Bound in the Las Virgenes Stakes. But there was work to be done later in the Strub with the emerging talent Blue Exit. The other players included John Velazquez, in town to ride Cowboy Cal, while Sutherland, racing's cover girl, was getting a chance at a big pot aboard longshot Victory Pete.

The Strub was as good a race as you'd ever want to see, except from Smith's point of view. Velazquez got first run (in the spirit of "Jockeys," the names of the horses will be suppressed), but there was Chantal right behind him, angling out as Johnny drifted slightly right in the final sixteenth. And out, and out, and out . . .

At least, that's what Smith saw as he came charging up from the middle of the pack, altering course around Chantal while riding hard. At the finish, Velazquez beat Mike by three-quarters, with Chantal third, a half-length farther back. Arrayed behind her, at margins of a neck, nose, nose, head, and nose, were Tyler Baze, Garrett Gomez, Martin Garcia, Joe Talamo, and Joel Rosario. And the horses they rode.

Pulling up, Smith convened a seminar with Sutherland on maintaining a straight course. Velazquez audited.

"He was kind of rough on her," John said. "It was like, lighten up, man."

"She was just unlucky it was her," said Garrett Gomez, nailing it.

"I can always go back to Canada," said a disconsolate Sutherland.

By the time they were all back in the room, things had cooled, and the real grief commenced, raining down on Smith from all corners.

"You gonna get your closets back now?" cracked Corey Nakatani.

"When Mikey gets home, all the locks will be changed," warned Jose Valdivia.

"But it's my house," protested Smith.

"You guys still having dinner?" Valdivia wondered.

"I don't know," Smith replied, sounding repentant.

"I know he ain't buying," Gomez added.

It would have been a coup to have included the nation's leading rider as a regular cast member, but Gomez declined a recurring role on "Jockeys" due to his travel demands. He is convinced the show serves a purpose.

"People don't really understand that we live in a big locker room, and we can't be angry and competitive all the time, sitting here for eight hours," Gomez said. "Once we leave the room, it's like Aaron Gryder said, if you're down inside and you're my mother, you're not getting out. At the same time, you never forget that when we're out there, I have his life in my hands and he has my life in his."

That would be called reality.

Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect margin for Victory Pete, third in the Strub. He finished a half-length behind second-place Blue Exit, not 1 1/2 lengths.