Watching Greatness

I was reading an article about riders and where they cut their teeth. Everyone starts somewhere, and it doesn’t matter how big or small the venue you ply your trade. Some were happy to be the big fish in the small pond, and others had bigger dreams. In my travels I’ve been lucky enough to see some on their way up, and some of the big names making their last run at the winner’s circle. As a fan of racing, I have enjoyed every moment of watching the greatest athletes ply their trade.  – Here are a few that come to mind as I sit back and enjoy the journey a second time as a racing fan.


Jacinto Vasquez = He began his career at age 15 in Panama, and will go down as the rider who defeated Secretariat three times on three different horses. He’ll also be mentioned every time you hear about the match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure as he jumped off of “Pleasure” to ride the powerhouse filly in this last marquee match race at Belmont Park. – He won two Kentucky Derbies, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint for a total of 5,231 victories. – In 1984 he was given a one-year-suspension from a 1975 charge of trying to bribe another rider. He fought the charge and eventually had to sit on the sidelines. – I had followed his name, as he was a New York rider as I tagged along with my dad to the races. But when he hung his tack at Keeneland for a couple of meets, it was my chance to see the patient master up close. – In 1988, he had the mount on a runner by the name of Risen Star for Louis Roussel in the Lexington Stakes against the favorite Forty Niner. – There was no live announcer at the time, and I listened to the race on radio as the track was so packed you could hardly wager. – Take a trip back in time, and watch one of my favorite riders do his bidding. You’ll hear the dulcet tones of Mike Battaglia calling the races for radio. Mike loved Forty Niner, and Pat Day did everything he could down the lane. When I heard Mike exclaim; ” I can’t tell as the finish line is a 1/16th of mile from his vantage point.” When I heard this on 630 AM WLEX; I just knew he got up at the wire.



Rafael Bejarano =  He was born in Peru, and was a graduate of the world-renowned Panamanian Riding School where the best in the world learned the habits from past masters. – He came to the United States in 2002, and had his first victory at River Downs. A track in my backyard, I was on hand to see him get his picture taken. A little later at Turfway park, I saw this rider waiting to move into the starting gate when his mount propped a bit and he rolled off the back head over heels in an awkward fashion. – We all are guilty of missing a glimpse of greatness, but on this night I chose to put both feet in my mouth. – ” Who is that ? – This guy will never be any good.” – I couldn’t have missed more if I had closed my eyes. Bejarano is one of the most respected riders in racing, and spends most of his time on the west coast. Who can blame him ? The weather is perfect and the biggest names in racing love fun in the sun. I have grown to love this rider every time he takes to the saddle, but forever in my noggin will be the eternal idiot words that came out of my mouth that night. Here is one of my favorite rides from this tough as nails competitor. – As Tom Durkin’s words of a crafty ride by Bejarano echo in my head, I had the opportunity to see him break his maiden in the states.



Julien Leparoux = He was born in France into a racing family. A son of a jockey turned trainer, he started as a stable hand at Chantilly Race Course in France. – He came to the states in 2003 and started working for fellow Frenchman Patrick Biancone in California. He broke his riding maiden at Saratoga in 2005. As an apprentice the next year at The Spa he set a record of 28 wins, the most by an apprentice ever at the historic track. He had riding titles at Turfway Park, Churchill Downs, and Keeneland. – His first big milestone was winning 406 races as an apprentice, and was voted the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Rider in 2006. He was also voted another Eclipse Award in 2009 as the Outstanding Jockey for that year. – Having the “Flying Frenchman” ply his trade mostly in Kentucky, I’ve had the greatest opportunity to see these skills. – Here is one of my favorite rides dating back to 2007 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. – He is patient, and can put them to sleep on the lead, or finish strong from out of the clouds.


Eddie Delahoussaye = “Eddie D” was born in 1951 in New Iberia, Louisiana. He began his career in 1968, and became the top American Jockey ten years later. – I watched his fearless manor of riding for years on TV, and would relish how he hung to the rail, and could master being on the lead or saving enough to fire like a rocket in the lane. – I had one up-close opportunity to watch him ride. I was doing the paddock handicapping for Turfway TV coverage, and he had a mount on Murray Johnson’s Perfect Drift in the 2002 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. – It was a cold day, and he had this one mount. Perfect Drift always made a nice move, but sometimes he got lazy nearing the wire looking around. Eddie D came out of the jocks room and looked cold as he was hunched over, and walked toward his mount quietly. Perfect Drift needed to stay engaged and see his competition, and the connections sought out a “master” to move him just at the right time. For a man who won two Derbies, a Preakness, two Belmont Stakes, seven Breeders’ Cup races, a George Woolf award, and Hall of Fame honors. This race will always define my time to see the “master” live in action, and was one of my best wagering days I’ve ever had at the Florence, Kentucky track.



I’ve had the pleasure of watching cheap claiming events, the Kentucky Derby, and Breeders’ Cup races. I’ve watched some of the best ply their trade breaking into their career, or on the way out still capturing our hearts. For any sports fan, if you mention one of their favorite players they can recall in great detail the big wins and the ones beat in the shadow of the wire. – There are Javier Castellano, Fernando Toro, Laffit Pincay, Pat Day, Irad Ortiz, Ryan Moore, Bill Shoemaker, Don Brumfield, Mike Manganello, Mark Guidry, Shane Sellers, Randy Romero, Jorge Velasquez, Angel Cordero, Mike McDowell, Perry Ouzts, Earlie Fires, Eddie Delahoussaye, and so many others. I could go on forever and a day recalling names that gave me goose bumps and excitement so rare. They are pound-for-pound the best athletes in the world, and you have to be pretty brave to have an inch and a half of the toe of your boot inside the stirrups, and glide along a 1,200 pound thoroughbred going 35 miles an hour. – There is no other game like the Sport of Kings. If you don’t believe me, just make your way out and watch some live racing soon.