Throwback Thursday: Winning and Losing with Robby Albarado

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In celebration of Robby Albarado’s 5,000th career victory (accomplished Jan. 22), we dug around the archives. Here’s the 43-year-old Louisiana native talking about the best and worst losses in his career. Published in The Saratoga Special Aug. 29, 2009.

The Agony of an Inch

By Sean Clancy

In sports, no agony stings like losing when you thought you were winning. Robby Albarado has stomached that ache since last Saturday’s Travers. The jockey had guided Mambo In Seattle to a head advantage over Colonel John in the $1 million classic. The duo hit the wire together, Albarado stood up and waved his whip in celebration.

He lost.

Albarado’s wife, Kimber, summed it up for him.

“Now, you know how that guy who lost to Michael Phelps feels,” she told him the night after the Travers.

Milorad Cavic was inches away from dethroning Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly. The Serbian stretched to the wall and Phelps rocked one more stroke and nailed Cavic by .01 seconds. Knife the guy.

Sports Illustrated displays the frame-by-desperate-frame finish. It’s hard to call. Just like the Travers photo was hard to call. They say it was the closest photo finish (that wasn’t a deadheat) since Meadow Star and Lite Light in the 1991 Mother Goose.

That doesn’t do anything to balm the pain for Albarado. Nor does the commercial trade of selling the photo finish around the track. The painted jockey hurts too. The Travers Canoe, yeah, he’s got to look at that WinStar-painted dinghy for the next year.

“It’s tough, I thought I won it, Gomez is right here at my shoulder, I’m in front of him everywhere but the nose at the wire. Literally he was behind me,” Albarado said. “I don’t care what a jockey says, it’s always going to hurt, every time I think about the Travers. You can take 10 races during the year and the Travers is one of them, the Triple Crown races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup . . . those kinds of races. People always ask, ‘Have you won the Travers?’ ‘No, I got beat two years in a row.’ ”

Both times for Neil Howard. Last year, Grasshopper overachieved and nearly upset Street Sense. This year, Mambo In Seattle nearly reached boil on the perfect day. Albarado rode both of them well, no complaints, but both of them lost.

“The horse is going to be a great horse, he’s a top horse this year but he’s only going to get better,” Albarado said. “My favorite story of the whole meet was the one in The Special about Neil Howard, that’s what disappointed me most because I wanted to win so bad for that guy, he’s better than all of us about it.”

Howard didn’t have the chance to win the Molly Pitcher the next day (like Albarado did) and the trainer certainly doesn’t get the chance to feel the healing power of Curlin, Albarado’s ride in today’s Woodward.

Albarado has ridden Curlin since he joined Steve Asmussen’s barn last spring. The 2007 Horse of the Year has put about $900,000 in Albarado’s bank account, winning the Arkansas Derby, Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster.

“I’m always excited to ride him, he’s a breath of fresh air. I’ll get tensed up and nervous, obviously, if you’re not nervous you’re not ready,” Albarado said after the last race Friday. “I always get nervous when he runs, because of who he is, I want to keep his streak going, undefeated for the rest of the year. When the gates open, everything changes, your nerves go away, get him a good trip and let him show me what he can do.”

Curlin lost for the first time in his last six starts when failing to reel in Red Rocks while making his turf debut in the Man O’ War July 12. Curlin finished second, splitting two Breeders’ Cup Turf winners, as Better Talk Now finished third.

“He was blowing a bit, a little confused,” Albarado said. “He didn’t know where he was, but he was like that the whole race, he had his head real high, at no point did he grab the bridle the way he normally does. At no point, did he say, ‘Here I am.’ Everything he did, I had to ask, it just wasn’t him.”

Curlin usually gets stronger with each furlong and instead was mortal for the first time since last summer’s Haskell.

“It’s a real bad feeling,” Albarado said. “At the half-mile pole, you’re on a 1-9 shot, not only being a 1-9 shot, but being Curlin, he’s set the bar so high and everybody’s expecting him to win every time he runs, which I am too, if it was any other horse you wouldn’t have been so disappointed, you would have been excited, second to Red Rocks, I was bummed he didn’t win.”

And happy the plan of going to the Arc de Triomphe was scrapped with the failed experiment.

Albarado figures, in time, Curlin would make a good grass horse, but for now, he’s happy to ride him in the $500,000 Woodward.

“His greatness excels when he’s on the dirt. From my standpoint, he feels totally different,” Albarado said. “On the dirt, when you ask him, he rocks you back in the saddle chasing good horses. He runs by them like they’re nobodies. And they’re quality horses, but that’s him. It’s a great feeling.”

Certainly a better one than the 2008 Travers.