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Jockey Gryder Is Riding Through Difficult Stretch at Del Mar : But 18-Year-Old, Last Year’s Apprentice Victory Leader, Has Been Through a Lot, Managed to Come Back Strong Before

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To 18-year-old jockey Aaron Gryder, Monday was just like all of the other days lately.

One of those wake-me-I-must-be-dreaming afternoons.

First race, aboard 16-1 shot White Silts: seventh.

Second race, on 43-1 longshot Dr. Neumann: eighth.

Fifth race, riding 9-1 Katoon: ninth.

Sixth race, with 6-1 pick Princess Pinnochio: seventh.

Eighth race, on 24-1 longshot Charlatan: fourth (in a seven-horse field).

Ninth race, aboard 8-1 Vital Score: seventh.

What a nightmare.

“It’s just a bad streak right now,” said Gryder, whose 0-for-Monday left him with only three winners through the first two weeks of Del Mar’s meeting. “I’m sure I’ll get through it.”

He has gotten through a lot worse. Including one night 1 1/2 years ago.

“I went to bed that night and my father (Dale) came in and told me he loved me,” Gryder said. “ ‘Win one for me tomorrow,’ he said.”

And Aaron Gryder drifted off to sleep.

A few hours later, there was a knock at his door. It was the police.

They told him that his father had been killed in an automobile accident. It was raining, and the car his father was driving had swerved off the road near the Gryders’ home in West Covina.

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“I thought they must have made a mistake,” Gryder said. “I had just seen him.”

When Aaron Gryder was growing up, his father played a big part in his life. He helped him and supported everything he did.

The night Dale was killed, all Aaron Gryder could remember were the last words his father had spoken to him.

Gryder rode at Santa Anita the next day.

“He would have wanted me to,” he said.

Few people knew what had happened, because Gryder didn’t want to be talked out of riding.

The rain that had, in part, been responsible for his father’s accident had also muddied the track.

In this gloomy setting, Gryder climbed aboard Tom’s Sweetie, a horse that had never won before.

At the halfway point, Gryder trailed the field. But then came something out of a storybook. Tom’s Sweetie took off. Passing horses. And more horses. Tom’s Sweetie carried Gryder from last to first.

“Not many maiden winners stick in your mind,” Gryder said. “But I’ll never forget that one.”

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A few days later, after his father’s funeral, Gryder rode again. He won two more races.

It seems he’s always bouncing back.

“You know these things about him, and you know why he’s going to become a truly fine jockey one day,” jockey Fernando Toro said. “He’s got the will and desire to become great.”

Gryder flashed on the scene at Del Mar last summer and won more races, 18, than any apprentice.

He finished tied for fifth in the standings with Russell Baze. Maybe a star wasn’t yet born, but at 17, Gryder was at least worth keeping an eye on.

“I remember one day, he came to me and asked if I had tapes of any of my races,” said Toro, long recognized as one of the best turf riders in the world. “He was having some trouble riding in the turf races, and he wanted to learn. I gave him some tapes, and he studied them. Right then, I knew there was something about this kid.”

Gryder had always wanted to get into horse racing. Four summers ago, he got a taste of it first-hand at a farm owned by former jockey Rudy Campas.

Gryder was there for a few days at the end of the summer and told Campas he wanted to learn about riding. Campas told him to come back the next summer. Gryder did.

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“The whole summer he helped me,” Gryder said. “And the main thing I always remember him saying was to have confidence. No matter what, I always feel I can do the job.”

Gryder started riding at Agua Caliente two years ago, and on his days off, he would drive up to Santa Anita.

He would ask trainers if he could work their horses.

“I wanted people to get to know who I was,” Gryder said. “That’s what you have to do. I liked riding, and people started to know who I was.”

Not long after, Gryder started getting mounts at the big Southern California tracks. He won his first race at Santa Anita in February, 1987.

By last summer at Del Mar, he was beginning to fit in.

“I always knew that I was no Chris McCarron or Laffit Pincay Jr., but I had the confidence to know I could ride with them,” Gryder said. “That was the most important thing.”

Gryder also knew that to one day be a McCarron or a Pincay, he would have to keep improving.

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That’s why, every night, Gryder tapes the day’s races and watches them on his video recorder.

“That way, I get to learn from the best jockeys in the world twice every day,” Gryder said. “I ride with them, and I learn. Then I watch to see what I might not have picked up.”

This year, Gryder is still taping the races. But he’s not enjoying what he’s seeing as much.

There have been few open spaces to run through, and his racing luck has been poor.

He’s disappointed for himself and disappointed that he’s not doing better for all the trainers and owners who have begun to show faith in him.

Monday, while he was riding Dr. Neumann in the second race, a rock flew up off the track and struck him. He wasn’t wearing his cup.

“I almost always wear one,” he said as he asked somebody to find him one for the next race.

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So things aren’t so great.

“He’s doing fine,” Toro said. “He’s got to realize that he’s riding against a lot of terrific riders here. If this were Caliente, maybe I’d be worried. But he’ll get his wins.”

Gryder agrees. His confidence hasn’t slipped, even if some of the fans’ confidence has.

“If you want to throw a horse out, throw out Gryder’s,” one fan said Monday. “He can’t ride anything.”

Gryder doesn’t hear the fans, but he knows they’re there.

“Any jockey knows he’s going to go through slumps,” he said. “I’m sure it will start going my way soon. I just have to keep battling.”

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