by Natalie Voss (Paulick Report)
Every spring between mid-April and early May, the country’s top jockeys play a complex game of musical chairs (or musical saddles). Injuries or multiple commitments often mean at least one or two horses are headed to Louisville without their regular rider. For the veteran with multiple prospects, it can mean the biggest handicapping job they’ll ever undertake. For riders on the bubble, there’s the chance to get in the action – and maybe get an unexpected victory.
This year, jockey Victor Espinoza finds himself the beneficiary of musical jockeys. In April, John Velazquez was the regular rider for Audible, Vino Rosso, and Noble Indy. He elected to stick with Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, while Javier Castellano picked up Audible. Castellano had previously been aboard Bolt d’Oro and was himself the replacement for Corey Nakatani, who had been in the irons for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the end, Espinoza got the call and has been working the colt in preparation for Saturday.
If Espinoza gets the job done in the Derby, it will not be the first time the winning jockey has benefited from rider shuffling.
Agent Ron Anderson knows the game all too well – he has kept the books for four Derby winners and says three of them got the call between the horses’ last race and the Churchill starting gates: Gary Stevens with Thunder Gulch in 1995, Chris Antley with Charismatic in 1999, and Joel Rosario with Orb in 2013. In all three cases, someone was out of town or committed to a different trainer.
“The only one I ever had going into the Derby was Silver Charm with Gary Stevens,” he said. “There are political obligations guys get hung up in. Then there are other situations where the rhythm of things gets kind of screwed up. One of my worst stories of all was when I had Garrett Gomez in California and he was riding a horse called Ravel who looked like a Derby-type horse. Steve Asmussen had gotten Curlin, and the first time he ran he called me up and said, ‘Could you ride Curlin?’ and I said, ‘I can’t, because Ravel’s going to run that day in California.’ Then, he called me for the Louisiana Derby and asked if we could put him on, but Ravel was going to run again the same day.
“Ravel after that race, never ran again [on the Derby trail] and Curlin went on to win $10 million. I’ve had some great stories and I’ve had some rough ones like that.”