Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens

By Hank Wesch

Gary Stevens would really rather be part of it than one step removed.  Rather be on the inside of the Del Mar jockey colony looking out, than the outside looking in, a Hall of Fame rider providing an expert opinion.

Impending full knee replacement surgery, from which he intends to recover and ride again, has sidelined Stevens.  But it’s put him in a unique position to ponder and give an objective assessment of a 2014 jockey group that is an intriguing mix of young, old, established and rising, in terms of both age and Del Mar experience.

“It’s a great colony,” Stevens said.

There are Stevens’ fellow Hall of Famers, Mike Smith and Kent Desormeaux. Smith being Del Mar’s money rider of the 21st Century with 41 stakes wins here since moving to California from New York in 2001.  Desormeaux having returned to the track of his 62 stakes victories from 1991 to 2004, but where he hasn’t ridden regularly since 2005.

There are track veterans Corey Nakatani, Victor Espinoza and Rafael Bejarano.  Nakatani  needing one stakes victory for an even 100 at Del Mar, second only to Chris McCarron’s 134. Espinoza coming off significant career wins aboard California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  Bejarano coming back from injury seeking a third straight Del Mar riding title.

There are accomplished veterans elsewhere, but rookies at Del Mar, Stewart Elliott, Elvis Trujillo and Tiago Pereira. Elliott won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Smarty Jones in 2004 and has more than 4,500 career wins. Trujillo, a graduate of the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Jockey School in his native Panama, has won riding titles at Calder in Florida and Monmouth Park in New Jersey and a Breeders‘ Cup race. Pereira has been riding professionally for 10 years, first in his native Brazil, and has more than 2,000 victories. His biggest was aboard Brazilian champion Gloria De Campeao in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in 2010.

There’s a group of still young and restless-to-win riders –Martin Garcia, 29, Mario Gutierrez, 27, Joe Talamo, 24, Tyler Baze  and Edwin Maldonado, both 31. Garcia and Gutierrez have Triple Crown wins on their resumes: Garcia aboard Lookin At Lucky in the 2010 Preakness, Gutierrez the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012 on I’ll Have Another. Talamo is fresh from his first Southern California meet riding title, earned with 43 wins at the 2014 Santa Anita spring/summer session. Baze, the Eclipse Award winner in the apprentice jockey category in 2000, ranks 17th in the country in money earnings for 2014 with his horses accounting for more than $4.4 million. Maldonado had a breakout year in 2012, winning two Southern California circuit riding titles, and is No. 37 nationally for 2014 with earnings of more than $2.8 million.

And in his own separate category is apprentice Drayden Van Dyke, only  19, and  fresh off winning the riding title at the brief Los Alamitos summer meeting.

“The young guys are fortunate to have Hall of Fame riders and veterans around.  It’s a great asset for them to learn from and develop,” Stevens said.“Trujillo and Elliott are great additions to the colony. Drayden Van Dyke listens and does the right things that, if he stays with it, are going to take him a long ways. He hasn’t nearly begun to tap his full potential.”

Nobody’s happier with the return of Desormeaux to Del Mar than trainer R.B. Hess, Jr. The pair were a powerful combination in the 1990s at Del Mar as Desormeaux won three riding titles and Hess two training titles, the 1992 honors in tandem.

“In my opinion Kent coming back to the West Coast is a win-win for horse racing and for Kent,” Hess said. “What Kent does for me as a trainer is he tells me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear and I can use that to do what’s best for my horses and my clients.”

Nakatani made a midwestern foray in 2011-12, but returned last year to add two more stakes victories to his total. “I think it’s a legitimate goal,” Nakatani said of the quest to catch McCarron. “I’ll keep working hard to get the good horses that I’ll need to do it.”

The veteran newcomers wasted no time in making their presence felt. Pereira won the first race of the meeting– aboard Brazilian-bred Hawk’s Eyes for Brazilian-born trainer A.C. Avila.

“Winning the Dubai World Cup was unique.” Pereira said. “Winning the first race at Del Mar on opening day on my very first ride over the track was very exciting and gratifying because I had always dreamed of riding and winning a race at Del Mar.”

Elliott’s presence at Del Mar ties in with that of first-year trainer Mark Casse. The two were a successful combination at Keeneland last spring with Casse being the leading trainer and Elliott the second-leading rider.

It didn’t take Elliott long to have a Del Mar Moment.  He guided Know Plans for trainer Barry Abrams to a $52.20 upset in the sixth race on opening day in his first mount at Del Mar.

“I can’t believe how beautiful this place is,” Elliott said afterward. “You really have to see it to believe it.”

A year ago, Van Dyke saw Del Mar partly from the end of a pitchfork as a stable hand for trainer Tom Proctor. Van Dyke, a Louisville-born son of a jockey, polished his riding skills under Tom Proctor’s brother, Hap, at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, FL and only began riding professionally late last fall.

“Drayden has done it all on his own,” Tom Proctor said. “He’s done everything that’s been asked, jumped through every hoop. If he keeps progressing, he’s got a shot to be a major player in  this game.”

The Del Mar riding title hasn’t been won by an apprentice since Eclipse Award winner Steve Valdez in 1973. Some on the backstretch say Van Dyke could do it.

But then, it won’t be easy. There’s all that talent, in a fascinating, competitive mix.