America’s top jockeys will be again be center stage when Santa Anita Park opens for its 78th Winter Meeting on Friday, Dec. 26. Santa Anita’s 68-day winter session, which will be highlighted by both the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7, and the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 4, has once again attracted A-list riders such as Rafael Bejarano, Tyler Baze, Kent Desormeaux, Victor Espinoza, Martin Garcia, Corey Nakatani, Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and Joe Talamo.
Bejarano, a 32-year-old Peruvian sensation who won his fifth Santa Anita Winter Meet riding title earlier this year, is again poised to lead the local colony, while veteran Hall of Famers Smith and Stevens again hope to be among the leaders in added-money victories. (Stevens led all jockeys in stakes triumphs in 2013-14 with 10 wins, one better than Bejarano and Smith, and two more than Nakatani, who checked in with eight.
Talamo, 24, finished second to Bejarano in total wins (93-54) last winter, and the hard charging Cajun will no doubt try to inch closer to the top rung. Espinoza, 42, who courtesy of Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome, is enjoying the best year of his career, will try to keep his momentum going as “Chrome” is tentatively scheduled to run in the $500,000 San Antonio Stakes Feb. 7.
Smith, who is widely regarded as America’s number one “big money” rider, appears to have found the proverbial Fountain of Youth at age 49. A winner of this year’s Santa Anita Handicap aboard Game On Dude, the New Mexico native is expected to ride trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s Shared Belief in the opening day Malibu—as the Candy Ride gelding tries to avenge his only defeat, which came in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.
Baze, 32, Garcia, 30, Nakatani, 44, Edwin Maldonado, 32, and leading apprentice Drayden Van Dyke, 20, are all experiencing productive years and hope to once again grace Santa Anita’s Top 10. Hall of Famer Desormeaux, 44, has enjoyed a career resurgence since returning to Southern California last summer and is has rebounded astonishingly quickly from broken ribs sustained in a post parade mishap in October.
Dynamic talent Elvis Trujillo, 31, has also “caught-on” in his return to Southern California, and he along with talented veterans such as Martin Pedroza, 49, and Hall of Famer Alex Solis, 50, lend ample depth to what appears to be the nation’s strongest rider colony.
Santa Anita’s Winter Meet will conclude April 19 and will be followed by the track’s 38-day Summer Meet, which runs from April 25 through June 28.