Updated on 09/17/2011 9:49PM

Winter's best riders are in Florida


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the late 1990's, the jockey colony in Southern California was widely considered the best in the country. Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Laffit Pincay Jr. thrilled horseplayers in much the same way that Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy did hoops fans as the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980's.

One by one, injuries and age sent these riders into retirement, along with other notable jockeys such as Corey Black. Recent suspensions and other setbacks have further thinned Southern California's ranks.

Today, the riders out west remain some of the best, just not the statistical best. That honor goes to the riders based in Florida during the winter months.

The accompanying chart - which lists the cumulative 2004 wins, earnings, and win percentages of the 10 leading riders at seven major winter tracks - illustrates as much. In three key statistical categories, leading riders at Gulfstream accomplished the most last year.

The 10 leading riders at Gulfstream won 2,233 races last year, more than 900 more than the 10 top riders at Santa Anita. The combined win percentage of the leading riders at Gulfstream was best at 18 percent. Their cumulative earnings of $110,755,749 dwarfed the bankrolls of the opposition.

In comparison, the leading riders from Santa Anita won 1,319 races and earned $68,380,66. Their combined win percentage was 16 percent.

In defense of the riders from Southern California, these numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Fewer races are carded on a daily basis in California, providing them less opportunity to win races in bunches. Two of Santa's Anita's top riders - Patrick Valenzuela and Garrett Gomez - rode sparingly last year, lowering the collective win and earnings total of the 10 leading riders there.

Other prominent Southern California-based jockeys such as Gary Stevens, David Flores, Corey Nakatani, and Alex Solis are also absent from their top 10, thereby lowering the group's numbers. Solis actually led the national standings prior to injuring his back last summer at Del Mar, an injury that kept him out of riding until earlier this month.

Of course, there were a few high-profile riders who similarly missed padding the numbers of the Gulfstream top 10 - jockeys such as Jose Santos, Kieren Fallon, and Pat Day. But even without them, eight of Gulfstream's 10 leading riders won more than 200 races apiece in 2004.

In fairness to riders outside California and Florida, there is plenty of riding talent elsewhere. They often just don't get to ride in races for as much money. Of the seven tracks that I studied, riders from Fair Grounds tied riders from Aqueduct with the second-most wins, 1,655, and those from Oaklawn had the second highest win percentage behind those from Gulfstream at 16.34.

In analyzing the numbers, I found a couple stats highly interesting - most notably the limited earnings of the riders from Turfway. Mounts of the top 10 jockeys there only made $13,542,859 last year - 12 percent of the total of those from Gulfstream.

I was also struck by the low win total for the riders from Bay Meadows. They won the fewest races, 1,144, even taking into account Russell Baze's 323 wins.

Baze, on pace to surpass Pincay's all-time North American record of 9,530 victories within the next couple years, benefits from competing against thinner ranks than those his colleagues face in Florida and even Southern California. His repeated success keeps much of the competition away.

Baze has dominated racing in northern California since beginning to ride there full time in 1980. With the exception of three years spent in Southern California from 1988-91, he had not lost a major-meeting riding title in northern California from the 1981 Bay Meadows till last year's Golden Gate Fields meet, when he was sidelined for nearly two months with a broken collarbone.

Watch out when Gulf riders relocate

Here's one handicapping angle to apply to these cumulative statistics. Watch riders from Gulfstream when they relocate to other tracks in the spring. In light of the competition these riders faced at Gulfstream, horseplayers would be wise to upgrade their 2005 records, knowing it came under difficult circumstances.

Manoel Cruz, winning at 10 percent rate at Gulfstream, will significantly improve upon that percentage when he rides at Calder. Joe Bravo, winning at a 9-percent rate at Gulfstream, will likely double that percentage upon returning to his New Jersey base.

They are but two of the many Gulfstream riders to follow.

Leading jockey colonies

The following chart represents the cumulative 2004 wins, earnings, and win percentages for the 10 leading riders (through Feb. 15) at the following tracks.

Bay Meadows1,14420,808,06515.66
Fair Grounds1,65538,811,95316.17
Oaklawn Park1,595 33,183,46016.34
Santa Anita1,31968,380,66515.99
Turfway Park1,34513,542,85915.12