This Derby season, it feels like the jockeys are dropping almost as quickly as the horses.
Last year's juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby exits a disappointing run in the Florida Derby with not enough points, and apparently, not enough energy to continue on the Derby trail. A few days later, San Felipe winner Hear the Ghost comes up a touch gimpy the day before the Santa Anita Derby without even having a shot to prove whether his last victory was a fluke. Just as disappointingly, Santa Anita Derby runner-up Flashback exits that race with a knee chip, now heading to the sidelines for surgery and a minimum 60 day's rest.
Late Sunday afternoon, though, perhaps the most startling Derby news of all; John Velazquez, rider of both Wood Memorial winner Verrazano and Florida Derby winner Orb goes down in a race at Aqueduct. The HRTV twitter feed Sunday night reporting: "further tests revealed Velazquez fractured rib & has a chipped bone in wrist per @DRFGrening, who is at the hospital. He hopes to make the Derby."
It's what they all—jockeys, trainers, owners—hope for. They hope for it, even with the full knowledge that, every season, every day for that matter, in horse racing—as in most sports and most things--it's the same. One misstep, one wrong turn or bad landing, and things can change on a dime. Just ask Velazquez. Just ask Kevin Ware and the Louisville Cardinals.
Sometimes, all the strategizing in the world doesn't make a bit of difference. John Velazquez pondering which horse to choose, Orb or Verrazano, now ponders whether he'll get to ride at all. Once rivals in terms of maintaining the services of Velazquez, Shug McGaughey and Todd Pletcher may find themselves together in the same boat—each looking for a new rider. In the meanwhile, they all hope for Velazquez' full and speedy recovery, say their prayers extra carefully each night and avoid black cats and ladders on the way to the racetrack each morning, hoping just as much for good luck as good health and good karma.
You'd be hard pressed to find a guy with better karma than Ramon Dominguez, though, who regardless of how highly he's valued by all, has ended up on the short end of the health/luck stick. Seriously injured in a horrific spill in January, Dominguez hoped to be recovered enough to ride again by May. More severe brain injury than skull fracture, as it turns out, Dominguez announced this past week he would not be back to ride again by May; he'll be re-evaluated by doctors in June to see where he goes from there. The rider who broke Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary's maiden back in December was on the sidelines when Castellano won the next two with him in a row. Now wondering when he'll ever ride again. Hope for a particular day, horse and race now shifted to hope for any race any time. And so it goes.
We as fans spend a lot of time, too, debating which jockey, which horse, which race. Debates that, more often than not, end up moot points by the first Saturday in May—probably more than anything else, what makes it all so great. For what it's worth (and perhaps, at this moment for Velazquez and Dominguez, especially, very little) there is little difference on paper between Orb, Verrazano and even Revolutionary. All three have won their last three starts, the last two of these in graded stakes, the last of these in races at 1-1/8 miles considered major Kentucky Derby preps. In their most recent victories, all three earned Beyer Speed Figures in the nineties, within a four point spread of one another. All three seem somewhat versatile in terms of running style.
When looking at the top two—Orb and Verrazano, the similarities are even more striking: each is undefeated in his last four starts, each broke his maiden, won an allowance, won a grade II then followed it up with a grade I. Each has a top horseman charting his course. Even the media find it difficult to split the two; on the Louisville Courier Journal Media Poll, all nine pollsters have the two horses within their top five Kentucky Derby horses. Five of the nine have Orb above Verrazano, and four (including me) have Verrazano rated above Orb. Should Velazquez be fully recovered in time to make the choice—and everyone hopes and prays he will be—it'll be a tough choice to make. Probably not the toughest anyone has to deal with, though, along the tough and winding road.