Larry Snyder rode 6,388 winners in his career and in 1969 won more races any other rider in the country. He was always known as a jockey eminently capable with speedy front-running types, although he won races with horses of all kinds, topping the standings for years at Oaklawn Park, Louisiana Downs and Arlington Park. Only 13 jockeys in the history of the sport rode more winners than Snyder. But he no doubt would trade many of his victories for a mount he lost in 1983—on Sunny’s Halo—or rather, as he might recall it, the mount that was snatched away. He didn’t lose it; he didn’t misplace it. It just disappeared one day.
In March, Sunny’s Halo was set to return to competition after a layoff of nearly five months. As a 2-year-old, he had run 11 times, winning four stakes in Canada. But in this country, in his last two starts as a juvenile, he did little, finishing ninth at Laurel and sixth at The Meadowlands, and so when the season began he was little more than a faint blip on most Triple Crown radars. Snyder had the mount on Sunny’s Halo for the colt’s seasonal debut, in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
The instructions from trainer David Cross were, Snyder said, simple enough—sit a little off the early pace and then make a move, but, most of all, “just don’t beat him up.” With the layoff, conditioning could have been an issue. So Cross wanted to emphasize that if the colt tired, Snyder wasn’t to squeeze him dry trying to win.
“I laid third or fourth down the backside,” recalled Snyder, “and turning for home, I went between two horses. I hit him about four or five times, and he wins real easy.”
Afterward, Snyder said, Cross gave him assurances that the mount was his, even putting the probability of Snyder’s riding the colt in the Arkansas Derby at 99.9 percent. But that was a treacherous one-tenth of a percent.
Before Snyder could even get comfortable with the thought of being on the favorite in the Arkansas Derby, Cross and owner David Foster tried to get a commitment instead from Cordero to ride the colt. Then, Snyder remembered, Cross tried to entice Laffit Pincay Jr. to come to Arkansas to ride Sunny’s Halo. Clearly, Foster and Cross were looking for a jockey who had experienced some Kentucky Derby success, the first choice being one who actually had snuggled under the old roseate blanket. Cordero won the Derby on Cannonade in 1974 and on Bold Forbes in 1976, and he was hardly finished. (He would win another with Spend A Buck in 1985). Pincay had finished second in three Derbies—with Sham in 1973, General Assembly in 1979 and Rumbo in 1980. He was due. Snyder, on the other hand, had seen little success in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 13th and 19th on two long shots. Finally, Cross settled on Eddie Delahoussaye, who had won the 1982 Kentucky Derby on Gato Del Sol.
With Delahoussaye riding Sunny’s Halo for the first time, the flashy chestnut colt won the Arkansas Derby easily, by four lengths, immediately becoming one of the favorites for 109th Kentucky Derby.
“I don’t even believe Eddie had to draw his saber on him,’’ Snyder said, recalling that Arkansas Derby. “I think he hand-rode him all the way around there, and (Sunny’s Halo) just win easy. Of course, he went on to win the (Kentucky) Derby, too, and the Super Derby down in Louisiana. He was a nice horse. And why I didn’t get a chance to ride him back, I don’t know.’’
Craig O’Brien, Delahoussaye’s agent, had been in touch with Cross for some time, Delahoussaye said. The agent knew about Sunny’s Halo and kept the lines of communication open, kept inquiring about the possibility of riding him, Delahoussaye said.
“The next thing you know, they called us,” he said, “asked us to ride inthe Arkansas Derby. So I went, and he won so easy.”
Delahoussaye recalled telling Cross right there, at Oaklawn Park, that Sunny’s Halo would win the Kentucky Derby. “I knew he was that kind of horse,” Delahoussaye said, “and he proved it.
“For Snyder, though, the Kentucky Derby was hard to watch. He was, he said, “a little upset” by the whole situation.
“But the owner, he pays the bills,” said Snyder, who’s now a steward at Oaklawn Park. “He can pay anybody he wants to ride the horse.” And, in this case, the owner paid Snyder after the Rebel. A victory in a $100,000 race gave the jockey a lucrative payday, and he was duly grateful. But then he was puzzled.
“I just never understood why,” Snyder said. Owners and trainers, he reflected, want a “big-time” rider for big-time races, but how’s a person to become a “big-time” rider if he doesn’t get a chance?
It’s a fair question, Delahoussaye said: “Hey, before I won the Derby (on Gato Del Sol), I would get knocked off certain horses. But then, after you win the Derby, everybody wants you. It’s not that you’re any better before or after.”
Such is the way of the game. “The thing is,” Delahoussaye said, explaining he was sorry Snyder lost the mount on Sunny’s Halo, “Larry won on him. He knew him. He could have won the Arkansas Derby and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. It wouldn’t have been any different.”
But it might have been different, dramatically different, for Snyder. Might-have-beens lurk everywhere in racing, of course, but some of them are painfully poignant. Snyder didn’t lose the mount on Sunny’s Halo: It just disappeared in the crash of circumstances that make horse racing at once uplifting and bewildering. But the narrative doesn’t always have to take such a turn. Nor does a happy ending for a hard-working, unheralded underdog have to be confined to Disney movies.