Don’t Give Him Flak for Making Big Move


He fastened himself in, because it was going to be a bumpy ride.

After more than 2,000 personal triumphs, after Triple Crown jewels, juicy stakes and Breeders’ Cups where wreaths of fragrant flowers were hooped around his shoulders, the unjustly overlooked jockey Jerry Bailey believed that a priority in his life had become this one great race in which he had never won, placed or showed, if for no better reason than: “When people meet you on the street, they don’t ask if you won the Preakness or the Belmont. They ask if you won the Kentucky Derby.”

Still, there were 19 snorting thoroughbred horses about to travel in a pack like Hell’s Angels, bumping and grinding in leathery coats, raising a little Cain and kicking up more than a mile of hard dirt. Enduring and surviving the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby, therefore, meant as much to Bailey as winning one for the first time. There was danger afoot.

The flak jacket fit snugly beneath Bailey’s gray silks with the yellow sleeves. He snapped open a buckle of his shirt, like Clark Kent inside a telephone booth, to reveal the hidden safety vest, saying: “Everyone’s reluctant to wear them now, but someday they’ll be mandatory, like seat belts or motorcycle helmets, and someday one will save somebody’s life.”


It is a precaution he takes before not only a run for Churchill Downs’ roses, but before every race to keep from pushing up daisies. Horseshoes aren’t lucky when they are kicking you, and, as the recently reelected president of the jockeys’ union, Bailey has strongly felt a responsibility to be the most vocal advocate of flak jackets, having seen one too many of his peers trampled under the pounding hoofs of rampaging horses.

There also was the obligation he felt to Suzee Bailey, back home in the adorably named Muttontown, N.Y., and to their baby boy of five months, Justin, the child they had tried for so long to have. Their absence Saturday was the only “hollow part” of winning the Kentucky Derby for the first time, said a jockey who had won practically everything else.

“I love her so much, it hurts not to have her here for this,” Bailey said.

His wife remained behind, minding their son. She was thrilled for Bailey, 35, when he telephoned home Friday night with the news that his mount, Dispute, had won that afternoon’s Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies that whets appetites for the next day’s Derby. Regaining the lead inside the eighth pole after losing it to Eliza near the head of the stretch, Dispute had won a race described by Bailey to his wife as “two champions, slugging it out.”

Together they had celebrated so many successes--the Flamingo, Travers, Withers, Tremont, Champagne stakes and more. Bailey had followed Hansel’s trail of bread crumbs to the winners’ circles of the 1991 Preakness and Belmont. He also had gone wire-to-wire in a Breeders’ Cup Classic with the classy Black Tie Affair. As far back as his teen years in the hiddenmost nooks of New Mexico, even his very first mount, a colt named Fetch, responded to Bailey’s gentle urging with a victory.

But Kentucky had been unkind. Five times before, Bailey had been given assignments. All five times, he ate dust. He finished in 18th place aboard New Discovery in 1982. He waited five years for another crack, but Conquistarose could do no better than ninth. Then, in 1988, Proper Reality ran fourth. It was the best he could do.

“The last two years, I came here with the favorite and second favorite, and even that didn’t do me any good,” Bailey said. Hansel slogged home 10th. So did Technology.


Few gave this year’s ride, Sea Hero, any more attention than was given Jerry Bailey. Oh, in a celebrity roulette of prerace interviews, ABC-TV did find one believer in Sea Hero, actor Dennis Hopper. Maybe he knew something. Maybe he knows an easy rider when he sees one.

Bailey donned his flak jacket and six pairs of goggles. Sea Hero had his own blinkers taken off, by mutual consent between trainer Mack Miller and the rider. In the gate, the horse got jostled, but with 19 horses involved Bailey expected nothing less. He sprang from the gate and blended into the pack.

“I didn’t want to be 19th and I didn’t want to be first,” Bailey said. “Tenth or 12th, fine. You can’t be too picky in a race like this.” No, all he craved was room to run, and, miraculously, others kept providing it, like a convoy of 16-wheelers carrying livestock down the interstate. “You can say I plotted a great course, but I didn’t really plot it,” Bailey said. “For some crazy reason, holes kept developing.”

As sprays of dirt formed grime on his goggles, Bailey kept flipping them down, going through four pairs. He came around the final turn trapped on three sides, all dressed up with nowhere to go, until, once again miraculously, the inside rail that had become his last resort suddenly opened like a diamond car-pool lane--”Like the Red Sea, it parted,” Bailey said--and Sea Hero responded with an astounding rush of energy.

What a ride. Storm Tower saw nothing more but his tail. Personal Hope was passed in a flash. Prairie Bayou huffed, puffed but couldn’t catch up. Bailey remembered being in this position before, but never with so much horsepower. By the time his 2 1/2-length victory was official, Bailey was already making the decision to donate the new automobile he won to the disabled jockeys’ fund, because: “After all, I’ve already been so blessed.”

He had his Derby at last. The jockeys’ guild had retained him as president last December. Suzee had given birth in November. And he could go home to her safe and sound. And maybe she could join him at the Preakness?


“Wild horses,” Jerry Bailey said, ever the jockey, “couldn’t keep her away.”