By Jonathan Stettin from Past The Wire

If I go back to the earliest memories of my life in Thoroughbred Racing, I’ve never minded being on the opposite side of the majority. That applies to my handicapping, opinions on breeding, trainers, riders, angles, tools, and almost any aspect of The Sport of Kings. I learned early on to form my own opinions, and not to be swayed.
I’m not sure if I am in the minority here or not, as I’ve never seen any official poll, but I’ve heard it said often enough to think I might be.

A lot of people think that the jockey doesn’t matter. I disagree. I consider riders a lot in my handicapping.

While I understand that you have to have the horse, I also recognize all riders are not created equal, and their individual abilities and tendencies, often affect the outcome of races. Jockeys are talented and gifted athletes, and anyone good enough to ride professionally is capable, but just like other sports, there are differing levels of capabilities and talent.

Great riders not only know the nuances of horses, like who lugs in, who gets out, and things like that, but also the habits and preferences of who they ride against. It’s part of what makes them great. There are plenty of big name riders and otherwise who have quirks, and habits, and knowing them can help in your handicapping and determining pace and how a race is likely to be run. Some riders avoid or shy away from the rail, some don’t like it between horses. You have riders who love and excel on the lead, some who like take back, and some who tend to go wide. All relevant factors. But that’s not what we are going to look at this week.

This week we are going to look at what I think are some of “Simply The Best” rides I’ve seen. Rides that made the difference. Races that wouldn’t have been won by other riders.

Where else to start but with simply the best ride I ever saw personally. Even as a kid, I knew I was witnessing something special. Everyone knew Bold Forbes couldn’t get a mile and a quarter, but he won The Derby. He had a rider who could do that, make things happen. Things that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen for other riders. He knew every horse’s habits and every rider’s strengths and weaknesses. He had no weaknesses as a rider and being a fan and student of the game, growing up and watching his career was a privilege.

If Bold Forbes couldn’t get a mile and a quarter, then surely it was impossible for him to get a mile and a half. No way, no how many said. Angel Cordero Jr. wasn’t one of them. If you want to see brilliance in a rider, you have to watch this race. You’ll see Angel masterfully take Bold Forbes wide into the first turn in a move many questioned as it was happening. Angel knew exactly what he was doing. Sure he lost precious ground, normally crucial in a race like The Belmont Stakes, but he got Bold Forbes to relax out in the middle of the track. He was clear on the lead and had his horse thinking it was a morning gallop. He went fast early, but gave him a nice breather after three quarters, and spurted away at just the right second to get him home. Angel was great at that breather and spurt away move. You can see it here and it’s worth watching.

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We have all heard the saying “carry a horse home” and you will see no better example of Cordero doing just that the last eighth of a mile.

Jerry Bailey was a great rider. He wasn’t only good intellectually, but physically as well. He almost always put his mount in the best position to win, and could ride inside on the turf as good as anyone I’ve seen. An old friend of mine used to say, “Jerry Bailey, he’ll never get you beat”.

In the 1996 Kentucky Derby, Jerry Bailey gave Grindstone one of the best rides I’ve ever seen. In a stellar field that included Unbridled Song, Skip Away, Honor and Glory and others, Jerry weaved Grindstone through the field from well off the fast pace to just get up, nipping Cavonnier by a whisker. He hit every hole perfectly, and moved at precisely the right time each time he had to pass another horse.

I heard an interview with him once where he stated something to the effect of how everything just worked out right with every hole and move he made. While true, and while the fast early pace helped, when it all works out perfectly consistently in the biggest races, it isn’t luck or coincidence.
You can watch the ride and thrilling race here.

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Note after the race when the camera switches to Bob Baffert, he says what appears to be “we got it”. Bob had yet to win his first Run For The Roses, but I remember him saying after that race he knew what it felt like to win, as he thought he did until they put up Grindstone’s number.

My friend loved Skip Away that day, I made a last second audible and went to Grindstone. Pike Place Dancer, who we both loved, won The Kentucky Oaks the day prior. Unfortunately, there was no Oaks-Derby double back then. What a ride. What a race.

Woody Stephens’ feat of five Belmont Stakes in a row is one of the most remarkable streaks in sports. Woody trained horses took The Belmont from 1982 thru 1986. The first two winners, Conquistador Cielo and Caveat were ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr.

Laffit, known for his strong hand riding finishes, was one of the best ever. He was powerful and fearless in the saddle. While Conquistador Cielo was remarkable, as he won The Belmont Stakes on five days rest, after beating older horses in The Metropolitan Mile the Monday prior to The Belmont, the streak likely never would have happened had it not been for a bold and daring split second move by Laffit on Caveat in 1983.

Woody Stephens opted to ride Pincay on Caveat, after Laffit had won The Belmont for him the previous year. This opened the door for “the move” that made the Woody streak possible. Caveat, a deep closer, came from far back making up a lot of ground under Pincay and a mostly rail skimming ride. The top of the stretch, where The Belmont is often won, is where things got interesting. Au Point, a lightly raced but well thought of colt was tiring from his pace efforts under Chris McCarron’s brother Gregg.

Cordero, like a shark waiting to pounce, sensed blood in the water and went around Au Point who was on the rail. At this point Laffit was third with seemingly no place to go. Without even a fraction of a seconds hesitation, Pincay bulled his way up the rail, bouncing off it in a move that even Calvin Borel or Bo Rail as they say likely wouldn’t have made.

Caveat went on to draw off, but it was that immediate decision, at the precise right time, that allowed him to do so and the streak to happen. You can watch “the move” here and it’s something to see.

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Gary Stevens’ has given more than his share of great rides. One of my favorites was Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2013. Everyone expected Beholder to use her speed and go to the lead. I loved her that day and in a Breeders’ Cup write up for Danonymous Racing gave out the exacta cold, Beholder over Close Hatches. I thought it was just that easy. I also thought like most everyone else, Beholder would be on the engine, and did her best running on the lead. Well Gary Stevens knew better and also knew when and how to adjust to how things were unfolding. As things turned out, Mike Smith and Royal Delta, as well as John Velasquez and Authenticity, had their sights set on the lead. This looked like a problem for Beholder. Gary knew it wasn’t. He knew his filly and knew what we all didn’t at that time. She’d relax and rate for him. In a cerebral move he took Beholder back to fourth and let the others go.

It was “just a matter of time” until Gary decided to take it to them. Watching him ride that race, I don’t think he ever, at any point, even when things were not going as expected, thought he’d lose it. A true professional and masterpiece. I was going to reach out to Gary and ask him if I was right that he knew he had it all the way, but opted to gamble and go with my observation. I’ve watched him long enough; he knew he had them. You can watch that great ride here.

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What’s even more amazing about that ride, is it followed a seven year layoff by Gary. He returned to The Sport of Kings in as good form as he left it.

“A tactical masterpiece”, that’s how it was called after Corey Black won the 1990 Jockey Club Gold aboard Flying Continental. Corey was always a smart and thinking rider. It was never more evident than that day in 1990. Corey rode a fantastic race and showed The Sport of Kings why it pays to have a smart and talented jockey. Corey and Flying Continental were up close to the pace when Corey realized he didn’t like where he was or how things were unfolding. To his surprise, and yes we have discussed it, Cordero and De Roche made an early aggressive move Corey wanted no part of. He dropped back, way back and let things play out in front of him.

When they hit the stretch Corey had a lot of horse under him. He also knew the tricky configuration of the oval at Belmont and timed his outside stretch move perfectly. He knew they wouldn’t be able to hold him off so it came down to timing and his was as perfect as any Patek Philippe that day. You can watch that masterpiece here.

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You can’t talk about the best rides of all time, without bringing up the 1989 Preakness. While Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had a great rivalry, there’s no question that Patrick Valenzuela made the difference that day in May. All one has to do is watch the stretch run and Patrick or P Val as we affectionately call him, pin Pat Day on the rail, making it difficult for Easy Goer. This race usually comes up in conversations about great rides and rightfully so. Just take a look.

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Patrick Valenzuela delivered many a fine ride over his career and is still doing so today. In that Preakness, he just “refused to lose” and out rode Pat Day.

I chose these rides as they are some of my favorites and I think the jockey made the difference in each one of them. I could have included many more and can talk great rides all day.

There are plenty of other great rides and riders and I don’t mean to slight any of them. They happen every day at racetracks around the world. Jockeys are great athletes and fearless. It’s no easy job, and the only one I can think of where you are followed by an ambulance.