Blame cognitive dissonance or my lifelong fascination with Napoleon (an underrated tenor), but I suddenly find myself at this charity basketball game featuring Santa Anita jockeys against a team of junior high kids, a track tradition that has stayed under the radar for almost half a century, the tallest player being 5 feet 7 or so. If you ask me, anyone taller than 5-7 has no business on a basketball court anyway. Tall people have really ruined this game.
Thankfully, this is one of those David vs. David contests (Goliath has the night off). Both teams are filled with gutsy, undersized players. My inclination is to root for the seventh- and eighth-graders, who are facing fully whiskered pro athletes with the faint stink of adulthood about them. As Dr. Seuss once noted, grown-ups are just obsolete children.
What kind of offense will the jockeys run?
“I don’t have a clue,” says Corey Nakatani, one of the jockey starters.
“I have to have confidence,” Nakatani says. “I’m going to say we’re going to win by 10.”
Judging by recent outcomes, that’s like Clay calling out Liston. The jocks won by a nose last year, but the kids have mostly dominated the annual contests in the recent past.
“The kids are four-point favorites,” says race commentator Kurt Hoover, the jockeys’ coach the past dozen years.
“Make it 4.5,” adds Hoover, and I can’t tell if he’s betting on his team or theirs.
“I think it’s going to be a good old-fashioned [butt] whipping,” says legendary rider Gary Stevens, an honorary co-captain with Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye and Mike Smith.
Yes, they play on 10-foot baskets. Yes, spectators occasionally scream, “Get out the whip!” What are you, some wise guy?
In fact, jockey Joe Talamo worked earlier in the day over at the track — two-second place finishes and a third.
“I’m still looking for my first win of the day,” says the personable Talamo, who never played hoops as a kid. “I was always around horses.”
And ... they’re ... off.
The kids, coached by Matt McSweeny, jump to a 4-0 lead in a scrummy contest that has more turnovers than a Swedish bakery.
The jockeys ping around the floor like stray bullets. They’re scrappy, these guys. Unpolished. Ounce for ounce, the toughest athletes around.
Which brings us to one of the charitable causes for tonight’s proceedings, a fund to help 60 former jockeys who have suffered serious on-the-job injuries.
The game also benefits Holy Angels School and is co-sponsored by the Eye on Jacob Foundation, which raises awareness for Usher syndrome, a rare childhood disorder that causes imbalance, hearing loss and eventual blindness. The 13-year-old son of Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux has the disorder.
This novelty event dates back 45 years, to when Ray Callei organized the game as a fundraiser for Holy Angels, a tiny elementary across the street from the famous track.
“When they first started, they had a pastor as a referee,” former jockey Alex Maese recalls. “My wife would say, ‘Hey, look who you’re yelling at.’”
Over the years, Maese says, the rivalry has produced many funtastic and hilarious moments as stars such as Willie Shoemaker have fought hard not to be outplayed by 13- and 14-year-olds.
“They’re quick and aggressive,” says Holy Angels center Christian Joseph at halftime, with the jocks ahead, 24-16.
“But we’re coming back in the second half,” predicts teammate Alex Pidoux.
Sure enough, the jockeys manage only one point in the first six minutes of the second half, and the Holy Angels boys close the score. The jockeys pick up the pace, but the kids hang tough.
With a minute to play, guard Sean Kelly buries a couple of free throws to bring the kids within a point, 31-30.
The jocks add a couple of layups, and with 17 seconds left, Kelly goes to the line and makes it 35-33. The boys are forced to foul, run out of time and wind up losing, 39-34.
So that’s how it ends up, the jockeys easily covering “the spread.” Even in defeat, the mood in the La Salle High gym is light and festive, though Gary Stevens does go off on me for not realizing he’s in that new HBO series “Luck.” I’m sure his performance is first rate and has all the throaty resonance of Marlon Brando or Orson Welles. Judging from his hissy fit, I’m missing some really terrific acting.
But tonight we’re enjoying simpler pleasures, the novelty of kids vs. jockeys, in a packed, beamed-ceiling gymnasium right out of “Hoosiers.”
No rap music. No P. Diddy nonsense. The whole bighearted event may have set basketball back 50 years.