08/31/2011 2:09PM

River Downs: Ouzts not slowing down at age 57

John Engelhardt
Perry Ouzts will claim his 26th River Downs riding title when the Cincinnati track concludes its season Monday.

CINCINNATI – Perry Ouzts pulls on the white pants and fastens them slowly. Either he hasn’t done this much before, or he’s in no hurry, seeing as it’s still well before first post on a Saturday morning at River Downs.

With more than 43,000 career mounts – fourth-most in North American racing history – it’s obvious Ouzts is just piddling around. “Same old, same old,” he said, as he climbed a flight of stairs to an empty jockeys’ room kitchen at this 86-year-old track.

Riding races, and the routine that comes with it, is pretty much all that Ouzts, 57, has ever known. Born and raised in Rivervale, Ark., alongside his second cousins, Hall of Fame jockey Earlie Fires and his younger brothers, Ouzts has gone on to carve out quite a niche for himself, albeit with precious little of the celebrity showered on the more famous jockeys of the last 40 years.

“Earlie’s dad and my grandmother were brother and sister,” said Ouzts. “Back in the early ‘70s, Earlie and a couple of his brothers were up at Arlington Park and asked me to come up, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’d always liked horses, been around them since I was a little boy. They found me a job, and after that, I never left the track.”

It didn’t take long for Ouzts to find his comfort zone, as he won his first race at Beulah Park at age 18. Indeed, Ouzts is well aware that he is the proverbial big fish in a small pond, having satisfied himself with what a circuit of River, Turfway Park, and Beulah Park can do for him and his family. He and Toni, his wife of 27 years, have two kids, ages 21 and 18, and both are enrolled at Northern Kentucky University near their home in Hebron, Ky.

“That’s my main focus right now, getting the kids through school,” said Ouzts. “When will I retire? Who knows? Earlie and some of the other guys have told me, when the time comes, you’ll know. But I’m feeling good, riding good. I don’t see the end anytime soon.”

Ouzts rode his 5,000th winner in August 2007, and into this final week of action at River, he had 5,730. If he continues at his pace of the last few years, he could become just the 18th jockey to win 6,000 races somewhere near the end of 2012. As the River meet nears its end Monday, Outz will top the jockey standings with nearly twice the number of wins of his closest pursuer, a typical illustration of his local dominance. The title will be his 26th at River.

Billy Hays, the second-leading owner in North America in 2010 and 2011, said he is awed by what Ouzts has accomplished at his age. Hays and his trainer, Joe Woodard, have been perennial leaders at River for the last decade or so, although it was only in the last few years that they began using Ouzts almost exclusively.

“I mean this: Perry seems to get better with age,” said Hays. “Yeah, we could ride someone a lot younger. But Perry tries hard, and he’s smart, and he just makes good decisions on a horse. Plus he’s a good guy, a class guy. We plan on riding him as long as he plans on riding. He’s pretty remarkable.”

Ouzts tacked 110 pounds for much of his career but now rides at 113. He ranks fourth all-time with 43,418 mounts, trailing only Laffit Pincay Jr. Russell Baze, and Fires. His win total is fourth among active jockeys with only Baze, Edgar Prado, and Mario Pino having won more races. His career win rate of 13 percent, however, is among the lowest to be found among the all-time leaders, and he said his greatest all-time victory, modestly enough, came four years ago at River aboard Old Man Buck in the $200,000 Cradle Stakes, which is on hiatus this year because of the financial difficulties the track has undergone.

Ouzts, who has endured countless injuries, including “35 to 40 broken bones,” by his own estimation, freely admits that there is a reason he rarely has attempted to move up the racetrack ladder by riding regularly at the bigger venues in Kentucky or beyond.

“You watch some of these top jockeys, and it’s amazing how horses run for them,” he said. “I always thought Pat Day was the best. Him and [Bill] Shoemaker. They’d just sit there, doing nothing, and their horse would just run through the bridle. I rode with Steve Cauthen, Julien Leparoux, [Rafael] Bejarano, and it was obvious they all had a world of talent.

“I always wished I had that kind of talent. I’ve got to bang on them, whip on them, talk to them, do anything I can to keep them going. I’ve been lucky to make a career out of it, though.”

Ouzts would ride six races on this Saturday, winning one, that being an armchair ride on a colt named Thunder Lovin, who prevailed by 22 lengths as a 1-10 shot. After dismounting, Ouzts makes the short walk back toward the jockeys’ room and briefly stops to talk with Toni, who has taken a between-races break from her job as a main-line mutuels clerk.

“She’s my No. 1 fan, always has been,” said Ouzts. “If somebody says something bad about me, she’s right up in their face about it.”

“Can’t help myself,” she said, laughing.

Francisco “Frankie” Vidal, who has ridden alongside Ouzts since 1985, said the popularity that Ouzts has earned from fans, horsemen, and fellow jockeys is well deserved.

“Perry has everyone’s respect,” said Vidal, 52. “He gives you 100 percent every time. He’s a pro all the way around.”

Jockeys: All-time mounts
1. Laffit Pincay Jr., 48,486
2. Russell Baze*, 48428
3. Earlie Fires, 45,027
4. Perry Ouzts*, 43,418
5. David Gall, 41,775
* - Active
Active riders by wins
1. Russell Baze 11,340
2. Edgar Prado 6,475
3. Mario Pino 6,368
4. Perry Ouzts 5,730
5. Kent Desormeaux 5,414
Through Aug. 30