By Jennie Rees
‘Everybody is getting chance to ride good horses, and it shows’
HENDERSON, Ky. (Aug. 14, 2016) — Going into the 2016 Ellis Park meeting, the jockey colony shaped up as its best in years, if not decades or even ever, based on accomplishments. It has lived up to that hype, though what might not have been expected was just how much parity there would be: With 10 racing dates left in the meet, Miguel Mena tops the standings with 16 victories, but six other riders are within four victories.
Corey Lanerie, a two-time Ellis titlist and 11-time Churchill Downs champion, and 2015 Ellis leading rider Didiel Osorio have 15 wins apiece, followed by Robby Albarado and Brian Hernandez Jr. (both winners of a Breeders’ Cup Classic) at 14, former Chicago and New Orleans kingpin James Graham at 13 and the up-and-coming Chris Landeros at 12. Behind them are 2011 Preakness-winning jockey Jesus Castanon (nine), Midwest stalwart Francisco Torres (eight), newcomer Declan Cannon (seven) and the venerable Jon Court and Joe Rocco Jr. at six apiece.
Mena vaulted to tie Osorio for the lead Saturday with a three-victory day, then took the outright lead by winning Ellis’ seventh race Sunday on 20-1 shot Field Goal.
“This meet might be the strongest ever,” Mena said. “There are so many good riders with good business. I’m just glad we’re doing well. It’s a very competitive meet, as you can see. I’m just lucky to be on top at the moment.”
The competition makes for excellent wagering, the parity reflecting that the business is spread around and one can’t just bet on the leading jockey, assuming he’s on the best horse. While new Hall of Fame inductee Steve Asmussen leads the trainers’ standings with 12 wins, four more than second-place Ian Wilkes, he’s also had far more starts (52) than anyone else.
“It’s anybody’s game,” said Ellis Park racing secretary Dan Bork. “It says we have very competitive racing. We have an outstanding jockey colony here from top to bottom, along with the trainers. World-class trainers, world-class riders. I think it’s by far the best colony here in years.”
Jose Santos Jr., agent for Osorio, said they figured it would be challenging to repeat last year’s Ellis crown when Lanerie opted to ride mainly at Ellis instead of Saratoga and Albarado returned for the second summer, though both frequently are out of town riding stakes.
“Everybody is getting their opportunity to ride good horses, and it shows in the results,” Santos said.
Jon Court, a six-time Ellis champ and the only rider ever to win five meets in a row, says the competition has meant jockeys must spend more time working horses in the morning if they want to keep their mounts.
“We’ve got some great riders here,” Court said. “It’s a very deep, talented colony to contend with this meet. You just have to be ready. I’ve been working more horses, where years in the past it was a little bit of a vacation from that morning grind.
“There are a lot of young riders who were really looking to initiate a jumpstart of their career at this meet. The downside is it’s been tough to materialize because the talent is deep. The top five, 10 riders are multiple title-winners and multiple stakes-winners, Grade 1s and world-recognized.”
Indeed, Castanon said when he first came to Kentucky, Ellis was “the one place to be” to get a toehold on the circuit. “Now it’s a little tough,” he said.
Ask the 29-year-old Cannon, from Ireland and in his first year in America after riding in Europe and the Middle East.
“I’ve been on a good roll the last six weeks,” he said. “I’m working really hard and making good relationships with trainers. But the jockey colony here is really tough. There are a lot of jockeys here with a lot of riding titles behind their name. I’m doing really well considering how tough it is. I’ve ridden around the world, and I know when I’m with good riders. And these are really good riders.”
Channing Hill, who last year relocated from Chicago to Kentucky, said you better be ready to take advantage when opportunity knocks, as he did in winning a 2-year-old maiden race Friday on Reedini when scheduled rider David Flores got stuck in New York because of flight cancelations.
“This is a terrific jockey colony,” said Hill, himself a Grade 1 winner at Saratoga and who has won on five of his 29 mounts this meet, with six seconds. “It’s almost too good for the meet here. I say that as respectfully to Ellis as I can. But you see some places that have a little better purse money but not near the depth of this jockey colony. But that just shows you how good Kentucky racing is, how everybody wants to stay here and be home.”
Ellis Park riding standings top 10:
Jockey | wins (mounts) | purse earnings
1 Miguel Mena 16 (97) $388,786
T-2 Corey Lanerie 15 (84) $347,756
T-2 Didiel Osorio 15 (118) $294,052
T-4 Robby Albarado 14 (67) $338,789
T-4 Brian Hernandez 14 (51) $311,185
6 James Graham 13 (92) $262,776
7 Chris Landeros 12 (85) $337,921
8 Jesus Castanon 9 (51) $192,320
9 Francisco Torres 8 (67) $148,646
10 Declan Cannon 7 (37) $116,378