11/19/2004 12:00AM

With right horse, jocks step up game


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Is the success of the leading jockeys at any given track mostly a result of their superior talent, or does it have more to do with the fact that they are usually given better-quality mounts than the lower-ranked riders?

How would the lower-ranked jockeys perform if they were suddenly given better horses to ride? Would their supposed second-rate skills doom those horses to failure, or would some of those jockeys prove they are just as good as their higher-rated rivals when they are given the chance to ride a legitimate contender?

Usually when this topic comes up horseplayers choose sides, argue their point for a while, then give up, resigned to the belief that it will remain a hypothetical question for the foreseeable future.

At Churchill Downs, some of those questions are no longer hypothetical. They are now being answered as a byproduct of the jockey strike-lockout at that track, which started with the Nov. 10 race card.

Brian Hernandez Jr. had been settling for too many second- and third-place finishes before the strike-lockout, with just 2 wins vs. 10 seconds and 8 thirds from 51 mounts. He tripled his win total during the first two strike-lockout days, with four additional victories.

Hernandez has continued to be successful during the last five racing days and, in fact, has made a remarkable turnaround. Now that Hernandez is getting better mounts, his win percentage has soared. Before the strike, his success rate was just under 4 percent. Since the strike it is 23 percent, and he has become a rising star on the Kentucky circuit. As it turns out, Hernandez has become the go-to jockey for a number of trainers running horses at low odds.

He was aboard 11 winners during the last five days, and the highest payoff from that group was just 3-1. Have you ever seen a jockey win aboard three 1-2 favorites on the same day? Hernandez achieved that feat when he rode three winners, all for Steve Asmussen, on Thursday, and each of them paid $3. His other winners during the last five days returned $3.20, $3.60, $3.80, $5, $5, $6.40, $7.20, and $8.20.

John McKee had 2 wins, including a $61 longshot, 4 seconds, and 3 thirds during the first two strike-lockout days, which suggested he was being given a number of solid contenders to ride. Bettors who got on board at that point had every opportunity to make serious profits over the last five racing days. McKee rode 10 winners during that period, and the payoffs were much higher than those generated by Hernandez. McKee's winners paid $39.60, $34.20, $28.80, $17.20, $14.40, $12.40, $8.40, $7.80, $7.20, and $5.

Eddie Martin Jr. had no wins from 15 pre-strike mounts. He has scored with 9 of 70 horses since the strike for a solid 13 percent, which is good enough to put him fourth in the standings.

Dean Sarvis should be kept in mind by longshot players as he shows 4 wins during the last 5 days, mostly at attractive odds, with payoffs of $27.80, $17, $15.60, and $6.40.

Larry Melancon's win percentage had improved from 10 percent to 14 percent during the first two strike-lockout days. He has ridden three winners since then, but the payoffs were only moderate at $10.80, $7.80, and $6.

William Troilo skipped the first strike-lockout day, but did very well on the second day, with 2 wins from 7 mounts (28 percent) and 4 of 7 in the money (57 percent). He has been less productive since then, with just a $17.20 winner from the last five days.

It was apparent during the first two strike days that Pat Day was underperforming. He had won with 11 of 33 mounts (33 percent) before the strike-lockout. Of his nine post-strike mounts, five of whom were 2-1 or less on the board, he won with two, for 22 percent. But they paid just $3.60 and $4.60 for a low $0.91 ROI. Since the strike began, Day has been about half as effective as he had been previously, with 5 wins from 29 tries, for 17 percent.