The legend schools the rookie on a cloudy day at Churchill Downs. Rain is falling and the temperature is dropping and the legend, 32 years the rookie's senior, is wearing a Kentucky Derby jacket befitting the season and the weather. The rookie does not have a Kentucky Derby jacket or a Kentucky Derby win, but this could change in less than 54 hours.
The legend is 51. He has ridden in seventeen renewals of this upcoming classic; earned his first Derby trophy when the rookie was three years old. Horsemen across the nation still speak of his savvy reinsmanship, of the great strategies and perfect timing. He was a master, the best of his era. The memories live on.
The rookie is 19. He has never ridden in the Derby, and is getting his first mount with a 3-1 morning-line favorite, Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge. The rookie has no reason to want revenge, but he has every reason to want to win the Kentucky Derby.
He grew up watching racing, born in Marrero, La., rode the bush tracks. Launching his career in 2006, he soon heard the call to "go West, young man." He made it big on the Southern California circuit.
That year, the legend retired, his lifetime earnings totaling $296,104,129 from 5,893 career winners. Still, he stayed in racing, and it wasn't long before he heard of the promising youngster who was tearing it up at the California tracks. He followed a few races. He liked what he saw.
Once, the legend sat down to critique the rookie's technique. He watched the field come down the lane, the rookie whipping right-handed, his runner flying past them in the stretch. Switch sticks, go to your left hand, thought the legend. And as soon as he thought it, the rookie did it. That's when he knew this kid was good.
They have come to the Kentucky Derby Museum on this cloudy morning before the first Saturday in May, when the legend has a break from commentating for a sports broadcasting affiliate and the rookie has an hour before riding. They walk through the green starting gates, pass the display of last year's winning colors. The rookie stops to peer at the pictures of old-school jocks, Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro, but the legend is on a mission. He commandeers the high-tech replay center, calls up the replay of the 2004 Kentucky Derby. The rookie catches up, leans against the console, keys into the screen. The riding lesson begins.
"That's him right there," the legend says. "Coming out of the auxiliary gates. Fifteen. Now he's a speed horse, figured to be up or on the lead or close to the lead. You see, when he broke, he didn't get bumped around. He's not getting bumped around still. To me this is the most important thing: As you run through the stretch, keep from getting slammed around. It takes a lot out of your mount. You don't feel it, cause you got a handful of horse, but it takes a lot out of them."
No one did this for the legend when he rode in his first Derby. There was no spelling out of pitfalls or common misjudgments, no words of advice from those who had gone before him. Of course, he was 25, had been riding professionally for eight years. The rookie has had his license for less than three.
Still, the rookie is no long shot, does not seek this win against a backdrop of hard-luck history. First time he rode at Delta Downs, he won. First time he rode at Fair Grounds, he won. First time he rode at Santa Anita, he won.
First time he rode at Churchill Downs -- just two days ago -- he also won.
For the past two weeks, maybe longer, the press has been making the rookie out to be a bit of an unsure thing. As if he could hit the gates and freeze. Or lose his cool in the thick of traffic. Or find himself making a move too soon as 20 of the nation's best 3-year-old thoroughbreds churn shoulder-to-shoulder across that broad Louisville oval. His confidence is admired, to be sure, and an argument is made that one so level-headed should be able to handle the pressure and the pageantry without losing his cool. Should be. But this is the Kentucky Derby, a rider's game of chance and skill, not a field of allowance runners eking out a living over the artificial surface at Hollywood Park.
The rookie smiles calmly through the questions. He is confident, unshakably so: confident in his own ability and his background; confident in the abilities of trainer Jeff Mullins; confident, most of all, in his horse. The versatile runner gives him a feeling that his chances at taking this thing are very, very, very good.
"Did you ride this race?" the rookie asks, as the field continues on around the clubhouse turn.
"Um, no, I don't think so," the legend says. Then he recants. "Yeah, I was, I think I was in there somewhere; now watch him!"
The horses are bobbing across the screen, riders sitting tight. They look like miniature figures, almost simulated, their actions predictable yet distinct.
"You see, he lets three go and he tucks in behind them. He's sitting fourth. Perfect spot. He's on the inside, and he's fine. He's got enough horse that he knows when he turns up the backside he can do whatever he wants. And he's good on the inside, saving ground, and he's not panicking, and he's not pushing his way out. He's letting the horse put him where he wants to be."
Now the field quickens, and the miniscule riders go to miniscule sticks, and the front-runner is desperately churning toward the wire, which is not coming soon enough to give him the win. The horse that will win, Smarty Jones, is digging in for his come-from-behind move to victory. His jockey is bringing him home.
"You can ask him for it," the legend says. "You can ask him for it right here. He's inside the eighth pole. If you get through the first half of the race unscathed, then it's just a matter of you being where you want and then pulling the trigger when you want to pull the trigger."
"So that's pretty much the best-case scenario," the rookie says.
"Exactly," the legend says. "Now let's see, I'll find the next race; what was it, 1875 when I won that one?"
Sea Hero in 1993. Grindstone in 1996. The great runners flash across the screen. The legend imparts wisdom.
"Don't be afraid to tuck in a little bit and save some ground. And if you look up and see 12 manes and tails like a wall in front of you, don't stress about it. And if you get through the break and the first quarter without getting creamed, then you just sit along up the backside and wait, wait, wait, wait, wait."
The rookie is holding several charts, reflections of the field for this year's Kentucky Derby. As the films wrap up and the screen in the replay center dims, he unfolds the sheets and reads into the figures, as if gazing into a crystal ball. The legend pulls out his glasses and they study past performances as they stroll back to the jocks' room.
"Picture it as you break," the legend says.
The rookie is in hole 13. Two speed horses are to his inside; they're going to go for the lead. His horse likely has as much speed, depending on the start. Two other speed horses, over to the left, will probably end up showing the way under the stands into the first turn. There will be two distinct flights of two; at least, that's how the legend sees it. The rookie can be in the third flight, sitting behind two and two, or he can be three wide in the second flight. On the kind of horse he's riding, as long as he stays out of trouble, he can do whatever he wants.
“"I look at horses that could be a pain in my ass," says the legend, and he points to the paper. "Well, this one could be for a while, but once you hit the three-eighths pole, he's gonna drop back. You know, if you're inside of him, if he's got you trapped, don't worry about it. He's gonna be dropping off."
Don't be afraid to tuck in a little bit and save some ground. And if you look up and see 12 manes and tails like a wall in front of you, don't stress about it.” -- Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey
"Him, he'll probably be handy," the rookie says of another starter.
"He will be handy," the legend agrees. "The slower the pace, the closer he'll be to you. This is the kind of horse I wouldn't want to look at and see him have me trapped in, because he can keep you there for a long time. Most guys have a tendency to move too early; they stop thinking after the eighth pole. Stay focused all the way through. If you can think longer than they can, you can win more races."
The rookie smiles at this suggestion, for winning more races is all he wants to do.
"Man, I appreciate this so much, that was priceless, what you told me," he says.
"Glad to help," the legend returns. "Just remember, things are gonna happen out there. Keep your cool and keep a good position and you'll get the job done. You've got the horse to do it."
From the rail, an observant fan holds out a Sharpie and program.
"Could I get your autograph, Mr. Bailey?"
So Joe Talamo lets the lesson end. He shakes his mentor Jerry Bailey's hand and strides off in the direction of the jockeys' room. He needs to get ready to ride the first.
And to win the Kentucky Derby.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, the Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.
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