Commentary

A tale of two jockeys, one broken heart

Updated: May 8, 2011, 2:56 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Robby Albarado walked briskly through the Churchill Downs paddock, away from the track that broke his heart Saturday. He held hands with his two sons, Kaden and Kash. The yellow silks he wore in the final race of the day were spattered with mud.

His battered face told the sad story.

The jockey's blackened eyes and swollen nose were gifts of Smoke'n Al, an utterly forgettable animal who altered the course of Kentucky Derby history. Wednesday afternoon, Albarado slipped off the 3-year-old colt, which was making its first career start, in the post parade before the third race at Churchill. Smoke'n Al stepped on the jockey's face, breaking his nose and necessitating stitches.

The injury kept Albarado off his mounts Thursday. He also took off Friday, Kentucky Oaks day, as a precaution to be ready for the Derby, when he was scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom. But when Albarado took Friday off, Animal Kingdom owner Barry Irwin and trainer Graham Motion feared he wouldn't be 100 percent on Saturday and made the decision to take Albarado off the colt in the Derby.

Irwin and Motion gave the keys to the "Kingdom" to John Velazquez. He just became available that morning when Uncle Mo, his scheduled Derby mount, was scratched for health reasons. It seemed like a trade down for Velazquez, since Uncle Mo was the 9-2 second choice in the morning line and Animal Kingdom was a 20-1 long shot.

Instead, the hugely accomplished Velazquez wound up riding the colt that would take him to his first Derby victory after years of heartache. And just like that, the 37-year-old Albarado -- who won a stakes race Saturday on the Derby undercard -- wound up watching his mount surge to glory on the home stretch with a complete stranger on his back.

The Derby almost always has a jarring plot twist or two. But this was an all-timer.

"The proper thing to do is to congratulate Graham and Johnny," said Albarado, who has won many big races but never the Derby. "Johnny rode a great race. But you get taken off the day before? It's kind of sad."

One jockey's sadness became another jockey's elation. Velazquez has himself been bruised by the Derby gods, losing top-shelf contenders the week of the race three straight years. Before Uncle Mo there was Eskendereya, the likely heavy favorite in 2010 who was scratched just days before the Derby, and before that was Quality Road, scratched the Monday of Derby week with a hoof injury.

"Guess it was meant to be," Velazquez said. "A lot of things happen for a reason. … It had to happen the way it happened today."

The conflicting emotions were stark and trickled down from the two popular jockeys to two of their valets.

Tony Millan, Velazquez's valet in New York for years and a close personal friend, bounded across the track after the Derby with tears streaming down his face. He embraced Velazquez's wife, Leona, and his two children, Lerina and Michael.

"I've been in the jocks' room for 30 years, met thousands of riders," Millan said. "There is nobody who deserves this more than Johnny Velazquez. Whether it's the Kentucky Derby or a $7,000 claimer at Aqueduct, he does his job the same way. There is not a person in the world who isn't happy for Johnny Velazquez today."

Actually, there were a few people. Mostly because they felt so badly for Albarado.

"It's [expletive] hard, man," said Garrett Broussard, who has been Albarado's valet at Fair Grounds Park in New Orleans for 18 years. "Robby is such a great guy. I'm trying to look on the bright side, but I haven't found it yet."

Albarado's home base is Churchill, so the jocks' quarters were as glum as you'll ever see them on Derby day.

"If the owners had any class," someone said, "they'd give him a share."

John Velazquez and Animal Kingdom
Horsephotos.comJohn Velazquez takes his first Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom.
Velazquez sounded like he was willing to do that himself.

"I told Robby [earlier in the day Saturday], 'Don't worry, if we win this race I'm going to take care of you,'" he said.

The duty of informing Albarado on Friday that he was off Animal Kingdom fell to Motion, which was probably a good thing. Motion has a much better bedside manner than the prickly Irwin.

It was a tough phone call.

"[Albarado] was emotional," Motion said. "I was emotional."

Motion had already endured one brutally difficult phone call earlier in the week -- to the owners of Toby's Corner. That horse was considered a viable Derby contender after winning the Wood Memorial, but he suddenly came up lame Tuesday morning.

That seemingly cost Motion his best chance to win this Derby. Then Animal Kingdom stunned the vast majority of a record Kentucky Derby crowd of 164,858.

The colt had never raced on dirt until the Derby, running three times on artificial surfaces and once on grass. But his sharp workout last Saturday on the dirt at Churchill convinced Motion and Irwin that he was ready to perform.

The jockey who rode him in that work? Robby Albarado.

"You've got to give him a lot of credit," Motion said.

At the end of a star-crossed Saturday, Albarado wasn't much interested in credit and condolences. He stoically did his job, riding the two races after the Derby, then wondered how it came to this.

"I thought I was doing the right thing [by not riding Thursday and Friday], making sure I was ready for the Derby," Albarado said. "It backfired on me."

Here's the cruelest thing: The jockey change was too late for the printing deadline for Churchill's Saturday racing program. So the program many will keep as a souvenir says that Robby Albarado rode Animal Kingdom.

As a result, some fans who just looked at the program and didn't know the story naively congratulated Albarado in the paddock before the 12th race, the one that followed the Derby.

Albarado handled those fans, as well as the gestures of support from other trainers and owners, with equanimity. But his blackened eyes gave away how much he was hurting on the inside.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.