DEL MAR — Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith’s veteran eyes tell him the current jockey colony at Del Mar is very good and competitive.
But Smith said these jockeys – a mix of Hall of Fame veterans, journeymen and rising stars — have one another very important attribute in common.
“Character,” was the word Smith arrived at to describe the quality of Del Mar’s riders this summer.
It’s a terrific riding colony, with Hall of Famers such as Smith, Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux and Alex Solis along with returning riding champion Rafael Bejarano, Victor Espinoza, who has won five of the last six Triple Crown races that includes this year’s Triple Crown, Martin Garcia, Corey Nakatani, Martin Pedroza and David Flores, the Tijuana native who has returned from Japan to ride again in Southern California.
But it hardly ends there. Newcomer Felipe Valdez, a 37-year-old Mexico City native who has recovered from a devastating back injury that sidelined him 3½ years, adds more depth to the veteran crew. And that depth goes deeper with young stars like Joe Talamo, Tyler Baze, Fernando Perez and Santiago Gonzalez. And certainly, last, but not least, there are Drayden Van Dyke, 20, who won the Eclipse Award for being the top apprentice in 2014, and French rider Flavien Prat, 22, the youngest rider at 17½ to get to 65 wins and lose his apprentice allowance in the history of horse racing in France.
“Talent isn’t the question,” Smith said. “There’s unbelievable talent in that room right now. But what we truly have is a group of quality people, with character, trying to put out what we’re supposed to be.”
Smith not only is impressed with the returning crew of riders, but he said the addition of Irishman James Graham, 36, will add another talented jockey to the group. Graham is closing in on his 100th win of the season. He had been riding at Arlington, Fair Grounds and Keeneland.
“You want to talk about a good son of a gun,” said Smith, who is 49. “I’m so happy to have (Graham) here. Most people don’t welcome talent, but I feel the more talent that comes the better I become. He’s very welcome here. He is just a wonderful Irishman.”
Long-time jockey agent Scotty McClellan has been booking races for clients for over 40 years. He has represented the likes of Chris McCarron, Darrel McHargue, Solis and Flores over the years. He books for young Talamo these days and believes this colony has a chance to be one of the better ones Southern California has ever had.
“The difference is those guys in the past, they did it for a lot longer time,” McClellan said. “A lot of these guys are just starting or just establishing themselves. When you look at the group like McHargue, McCarron, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye, Bill Shoemaker, one that added jockeys like Stevens, Smith, Solis, Desormeaux and Espinoza, that’s a colony that won’t be duplicated. Now if they keep this colony together for five, 10 years . . . well, then we’ll see.”
Jockey Rafael Bejarano has owned Del Mar the last three seasons. He won his fourth Del Mar jockey title last summer to give him four of the last seven. He enters the 2015 summer meet after winning his 12th Santa Anita riding title, 27th overall in Southern California. He had to battle to win the spring meeting at Santa Anita.
“It was kind of hard because the competition was pretty tough this meet,” Bejarano said after Santa Anita ended. “In the beginning a couple of riders put a lot of competition on me. The business was kind of split up because there are so many good riders. It made for some pretty exciting racing. I’m really happy to be the leading rider again.”