By Jennie Rees for JockeyTalk360.com
James Graham is back riding at the Fair Grounds, and if he won only three races in his first 52 at the meet through Jan. 24, he’s accomplishing his main mission in returning from Southern California almost halfway through New Orleans’ winter racing season.
“I just want to ride races,” Graham said recently. “All I’ve ever wanted to be was riding.”
Graham was among the leading riders at Arlington Park but changed circuits last year with the diminished purses in Chicago. He ran away with the Fair Grounds’ riding title, both in wins (106) and purses ($3.26 million), then rode regularly at Churchill Downs 2015 spring meet for the first time, capturing 22 victories to tie for sixth. After that, Graham relocated to California, getting off to a good start at Del Mar’s summer meet, winning 13 races and two stakes, including the Grade I Del Mar Oaks on Sharla Rae.
But as can so easily happen in racing, especially when short fields are common, Graham’s business just wasn’t there when the racing returned to Santa Anita for the winter.
“It just got slow real quick,” he said. “… I thought I’d come back to the Midwest where we had a lot of connections. Hopefully we can pick up a little bit of business and go from there.”
Coming into a meet that’s been running for two months can be very tough because trainers already have committed to other jockeys at least through the current condition book. Even then, it’s hard to change jockeys when a horse has been running well, or if the jockey has been working the horse all along.
But Graham, who began riding at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 10, said he was prepared not to immediately pick up where he left off last winter in New Orleans. All he wants is a chance to ride a lot of races.
“When you’re riding three or four a day, and you’re not getting the job done, it’s very hard to stay in a position where you’re not happy,” he said. “I had a great time out there, I just couldn’t sustain myself. We’d been thinking about it for a while, and it just came to a head when Santa Anita started. It just wasn’t getting any better.
“… It had nothing to do with winning races. It was just riding races. It was getting very hard, and the lack of horses out there doesn’t help.”
With former jockey Mark Guidry his agent, Graham is riding most of the card these days. The jockey also has four seconds and five thirds at the Fair Grounds – which they hope to turn into victories when the horses race back.
One thing Graham has never shied from is hard work, and he’s out every morning working as many horses as he can – “seven or eight” on one of his first days back in town.
“Starting two months into a meet is a very tricky time,” Guidry said. “Because a lot of horses you’re going after, they’re taken. More or less now, we ride and are weeding out as we go. Because James does like to ride, but he’s also used to winning. He realizes it’s a building process. We’ve won one, but we’ve had four seconds and a lot of thirds and fourths. But those seconds and thirds will come back and hopefully win. Mr. (Tom) Amoss and Mr. (Larry) Jones have given us opportunities right from the start, so that’s really appreciated.”
Guidry won 5,222 races in a career spanning parts of five decades, retiring once before to try a training career for three years. Back in the saddle — including winning 104 races in 2012 — Guidry retired again in 2014.
“My agent is doing a good job now, and we’re rolling along,” Graham said. “He’s got a good rapport with people and hopefully we’ll have continued success.… It’s great being back. One thing about it, I’m getting on plenty of horses.”
Guidry was representing Eddie Martin Jr. and Kirk LeBlanc, both among the leading riders at Delta Downs, when Graham called to see if the former jockey wanted to take his book. It was just too good an opportunity to turn down, even with as much success and respect he has for Martin and LeBlanc.
“James is a great rider, a hard rider. You’re going to get the same rider every day,” Guidry said. “He’s always very, very consistent. He’s the kind of rider who can make things happen. If he’s on like the fifth- or sixth-best horse, in my mind, he can make something happen. That’s always good to have in your mind: ‘This horse is fourth or fifth choice, but you know what, James has never ridden it. With his running style, perhaps he might just get this horse there.’ That’s always a huge plus.”
What comes after the Fair Grounds is yet to be decided. “We’ll just get through this meet and see where it takes us,” Graham said. “Everything is on the table. We’ll see what our options are and go from there. The good thing is we do have options.”