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A heavy load for jockey Court

It’s Monday morning on a chamber-of-commerce day at Santa Anita race track, and jockey Jon Court is looking toward the striking blue sky and glimmering mountains, going to a place in his mind he visits often these days. Family land.

“My dad would have been 76 today,” Court says. “I just looked up there and wished him happy birthday.”

When Court heads downhill on the turf course Saturday in the $150,000 Cal Cup Distaff, he will be riding the near-mystical Cambiocorsa, as she goes for her ninth consecutive victory on the Santa Anita grass.

Cambiocorsa, a gray 4-year-old, should be near the front as they cross the dirt and head for home. Since April 5, 2005, she has been there in eight races on the Santa Anita turf and won them all. In six of those, including the last four, Court has been in the saddle.

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Saturday, Court will carry his whip, maybe tap her a little in the stretch, and from afar, that will appear to be his only baggage. But there is so much more.

Just 17 days ago, on the morning of Oct. 7, another Saturday with lots of big races at Santa Anita, Court was halfway out the door of his La Verne home when the phone rang. It was his mother, calling his wife, on their home phone. He knew something was wrong, because his mother, who lives in Florida, always calls on his cell.

“She didn’t know what to do,” Court says. “She was afraid to tell me, so she called my wife first.”

His brother Jim, at 47 a year older than Jon, had been killed, hit by a truck while riding his bicycle in Sanford, Fla. Court describes what followed as waves of emotion, almost paralyzing in physical and mental pain.

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Mostly, he felt disbelief. This was not the first time, nor the first such loss. Twenty-six years ago, his younger brother, Jay, had been hit by a car while walking with a friend, then had died shortly afterward, never coming out of a coma.

At least Jim had died instantly, Jon Court says now, as if that somehow made it better.

Jay was killed by a drunk driver, who left the scene of the accident. They found the driver later that night, in time to test him and prove his degree of alcohol consumption.

Jim was killed by a driver suspected of being under the influence. He too left the scene of the accident and wasn’t apprehended until the next day, too late to determine if, or how much, alcohol had been involved. Court says that investigation is still going on.

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Jim, Jon and Jay were each born about a year apart in Gainesville, Fla., starting with Jim in 1959.

“Mom took a break and then Karen, our last sibling, was born two years after Jay,” Court says. “But it was Jay who was the apple of our parents’ eye. He was good at everything. He was the best athlete, the best baseball player in the family. He was always out there on the major youth teams while I sat around, a kid with a cap and a T-shirt.

“My parents never missed one of his games, and kids at school used to ask me if I was Jay Court’s brother. I always told them Jay was Jon Court’s brother.

“When he died, he had already established his own business, was married, doing great, already a finish carpenter. In everything he did, Jay was pretty much invincible.”

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Jon Court was an apprentice jockey in Colorado in 1980 when he got the news of Jay’s death. He flew home, got to the funeral service and couldn’t go in.

“I had my hand on the door handle of the church,” he says, “and I couldn’t do it. I wandered around in the parking lot while the service went on. I mostly sat in a car and cried.”

Some find closure in these cases more quickly than others. Few take as long as Court.

“It was about a decade, maybe more,” he says.

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So, even he seems a bit surprised now at his ability to trudge forward after Jim’s death. He credits religion, family, friends, some years of maturity and even fans at Santa Anita for helping him get through this most recent loss.

At the urging of his mother, he went to the track on Oct. 7, rode several races that may have a bearing on rides for the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup, then got on a plane for yet another funeral in Florida. This time, he got through the door of the church.

“I even got up in front, on the stage, and made a speech about my brother,” he says.

At 46, Court is among the older jockeys in the room at Santa Anita, and among the most-liked. He is also the only grandfather, which makes him fair game for his younger peers.

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“They never let me forget it,” he says.

If not for geography, his 1-year-old granddaughter, Alana, would have a built-in playmate. Court and his wife, Krystal, have a 3-year-old daughter, Aubrey. His daughter, Donielle, Alana’s mom -- one of Court’s three grown children from his first marriage -- lives in Louisville.

Court has ridden in the Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup once each. He has never made it to the Kentucky Derby, although he has won races at Churchill Downs on Derby Day and the days before and after. He has been riding in California only since 2004, but has become a solid top-10 rider at most of the local meetings, remaining just a notch below the likes of Corey Nakatani, Victor Espinoza and Alex Solis.

In this Oak Tree meeting, Court is not in the top 10 riders, but his ride aboard Cambiocorsa has become the story of Oak Tree’s final weekend. Never before has a horse been so dominant over the track’s turf course. The Doug O’Neill-trained horse’s streak has become known, around Santa Anita, as “the Perfect Eight.”

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Court says the key for Cambiocorsa, a granddaughter of Seattle Slew, is the ease with which she covers the dirt crossing. Horses competing on the grass at Santa Anita do so by starting downhill at a blazing pace, then turning left for home. As they do so, they must cross about 40 yards of dirt that is part of the main track, and many are spooked.

“I’ve had them jump, or duck,” Court says. “As soon as that happens, you lose several lengths. I even had one try to prop on me, kind of dig his back heels in and stop right there. I almost went headfirst out of the saddle.

“That’s why you’ll see some of the jockeys before the race Saturday, walking their horses back and forth, sometimes as many as three times, over the dirt.

“But I don’t need to do that. Not with Cambia. It has never bothered her. If I close my eyes when we get to that part of the course, I won’t even know when we are on the dirt and when we’re off. She just glides over it.”

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All jockeys get attached to great horses, and Court is no exception with Cambiocorsa.

“She’s special,” Court says, with a reverence reserved for family.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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