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Riding It Out

Times Staff Writer

A jockey can ride only one horse in the Kentucky Derby, but at one point this spring, Edgar Prado was riding four colts pointed toward Churchill Downs, and Garrett Gomez rode three that will be in the race.

“Jockey shuffling” as some trainers call it, is one of the games within the game, as jockeys, their agents and the horses’ trainers and owners, well, jockey, to get the best mount and the best rider to try to win the Derby.

Sometimes, the horse isn’t as good as it first looked, falling out of contention after a disappointing performance in a prep race.

Sometimes, the horse gets hurt, as did Gomez’s original Derby hopeful, Stevie Wonderboy, the early favorite sidelined in February with an ankle injury.

And sometimes, it’s the jockey who goes down. That happened to top rider John Velazquez, who rode several contenders and was supposed to ride Bluegrass Cat in the Derby before injuring his shoulder two weeks ago after another of his mounts broke down and had to be euthanized.

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There’s another side too -- the game of cat-and-mouse played as trainers try to get an early commitment from a rider and jockey agents try to delay a decision as long as possible to secure the best possible mount.

Sometimes, it goes sour.

“We call it getting ‘spun,’ ” trainer Bob Baffert said. “That’s when they say they’ll ride your horse and then call you and say they’ve got a better mount. Agents ‘spin’ you -- or when they drop you right at the draw, we call that ‘getting flushed.’

“We’ve spun and flushed too, though.”

Michael Matz, the trainer of Barbaro, one of the favorites in the 132nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday, still bristles when he talks about an earlier situation with Prado, who will ride Barbaro for him in the Derby.

“His agent, Bob Frieze, spun me in the Arlington Million,” Matz said. “I was very upset. You don’t do that in a million-dollar race.”

Prado, Matz said, was to ride Matz’s Kicken Kris in the 2004 Arlington Million, then jumped to a horse named Magistretti.

Matz turned to Kent Desormeaux, who won the race on a disqualification. Magistretti, originally third, was awarded second.

Matz didn’t forget.

This spring, when Prado was riding Derby hopefuls Barbaro, Keyed Entry, First Samurai and Strong Contender, Matz said he forced the issue with Frieze after Prado won the Florida Derby aboard Barbaro.

“I asked what they were going to do and he said, ‘We’ll have to see how everything pans out.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, I’ll give you two weeks.’ And I did place a couple of calls. They knew I was looking.

“I have no hard feelings against Bob and I never had any hard feelings for Edgar....The thing that happened in the Arlington Million is over. It’s not ever going to happen again. Either you say you’re with me or not.”

Trainer Frank Brothers wasn’t willing to wait for Prado, figuring Prado would choose Barbaro anyway. He replaced him on First Samurai in the Blue Grass Stakes with Rafael Bejarano, but the colt dropped off the trail after a disappointing finish and later was found to have cracked ribs.

After well over a century of Kentucky Derby races, stories of jockey shuffling -- well made choices and regretful mistakes -- are part of the lore.

In 1919, Earl Sande, who went on to win the Derby three times, had his choice of mounts -- winless Sir Barton, or Billy Kelly.

Sande chose Billy Kelly. Sir Barton not only won the Derby but became the first horse to win the Triple Crown.

Eddie Arcaro won five Derbies but guessed wrong at least twice, when he turned down mounts on 1942 winner Shut Out and 1950 winner Middleground.

Sometimes, it’s not simply about guessing right, but being in the right place at the right time.

“It isn’t like you’re some genius who can find some horse ready to win the first Saturday in May,” said jockey agent Scott McClellan, who represented Chris McCarron before his retirement. “If you see conflicts, you try get your name in there and say, ‘Look, if he doesn’t ride yours, keep us in mind.’ ”

In 1987, Pat Day had been riding Alysheba and Demons Begone, then decided to ride Demons Begone in the Derby.

McCarron, just coming back from an injury, didn’t have a Derby mount, and was walking through the stable area one day and saw Alysheba’s trainer.

“Jack Van Berg said, ‘Are you fit enough to ride in the Kentucky Derby?’ I said, ‘If it’s Alysheba, you better believe I am.’ I happened to be available and walking by at the right time.”

Demons Begone bled in the race and was pulled up, and McCarron rode Alysheba to victory. He won for a second time aboard Go For Gin in 1994.

Jerry Bailey had ridden Go For Gin in all five of his pre-Derby races. But when Go For Gin couldn’t beat Irgun, ridden by Gary Stevens, in the Wood Memorial, Bailey jumped to Irgun for the Derby, with Stevens already set to ride Brocco.

McCarron ended up on Go For Gin -- and Irgun missed the race because of an injury.

“There’s a lot of variables,” said McCarron, who passed on 1997 winner Silver Charm out of loyalty to another trainer, then missed the race anyway because he was injured.

“There’s a lot of mind games that have to be played, lots of politicking, lots of relationship-nurturing.”

Stevens won the Derby three times, once in 1995 on Thunder Gulch, who’d been ridden by five jockeys in six races before the Derby.

“It was a very bizarre situation,” said agent Ron Anderson, who represented Stevens and Bailey at times during their careers and now represents Gomez.

Stevens had been riding in Hong Kong, but shuttled back to California to ride Santa Anita Derby winner Larry The Legend, who was injured before the Derby and didn’t run.

But Thunder Gulch was left open after Day and Mike Smith ended up on other horses. Trainer Wayne Lukas called Stevens, who ended up on the winner.

“That situation was just kind of bouncing in and being lucky,” Anderson said.

There are different kinds of lucky.

Desormeaux, the only two-time winning jockey in this year’s Derby, flew in from New York last week to work Sweetnorthernsaint for trainer Michael Trombetta.

Then he overslept and missed the workout.

“He called me, he was just sick, and said, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ ” said Trombetta, a first-time Derby trainer who is one of the more relaxed fellows on the backside.

“So he turned around and went back to New York. He had a horse in one of the early races,” Trombetta said, shrugging.

Lucky for Desormeaux, Trombetta isn’t looking for another rider. It would be a guessing game anyway.

“As the road narrows, getting down to the Derby, you start to see a little more clearly who the main contenders are,” said Gomez, who picked Bob And John for Saturday over Sinister Minister. “You’ve got to get lucky, to try to get on a couple of them, get your hand on them to begin with, and then hopefully they perform.”

Times correspondent Bill Christine contributed to this report.


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