Book Excerpt: Ride To Win

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(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book “Ride To Win: An Inside Look At The Jockey’s Craft” by Bob Fortus and Gary West. Recognized earlier this year as a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, the book explores everything that goes into winning a race from the rider’s perspective. Topics include how jockeys land mounts, strategy, what’s actually happening on the way to the starting gate, what riders are thinking and trying to do as a race unfolds and more. Fortus will be on hand with the Saratoga jockey colony for an autograph signing, with a suggestion donation to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday on the Jockey Silks Room Porch. 

Halfway home and around the turn

Midway through the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs in 1988, Randy Romero was still trying. With all the skill that would put him inthe Hall of Fame he tried, but he had nearly exhausted his veteran’s list ofideas and still he hadn’t found a way to shift Personal Ensign into gear.At stake was her legacy as an undefeated champion. Retirement awaitedher after this, her 13th start, and to just about everybody in the crowd of71,237, as well as to a national television audience, she looked beaten.Like dust, anxiety settled on everything and everybody.

But much occurs in the middle of a race. Fans might overlook whathappens in the run down the backstretch and around the turn largelybecause they’re so far removed from the action. At some racetracks, thetote board and trees obscure long stretches of the backside so that, as TheLittle Prince pointed out, what’s essential might be invisible. But this iswhere even the subtlest moves and split-second reactions can make a difference.

Jockeys use this part of the race to gather information, reading theother horses and riders or maybe even the surface, and then making reasonedadjustments or desperate efforts, which, in some cases, can turn ahorse and a race around in an instant. At this point, jockeys often committo waiting or moving, going through or around, in or out, and theyattempt to set themselves up, if they have sufficient horse, to challenge inthe stretch. Some jockeys, though, not content with riding their own horsewill try to ride another’s, putting a rival in a box or leading him down adead-end street. This, in other words, is where much of the “race-riding,”as jockeys call it, takes place, much of the gamesmanship, too. And this iswhere a jockey can establish a comfortable and effective distribution ofenergy, which, as much as courage or endurance or even speed, is essentialto winning. Yes, it might be overlooked or even invisible to most eyes,but what happens in that run into and around the turn often proves essential,as it did in the 1988 Distaff.

Down the backstretch at Churchill, as time and distance ran out, thisbegan to look like an unlucky 13th for Personal Ensign. Unfolding like anightmare, the Distaff followed the scenario that Romero and ShugMcGaughey, Personal Ensign’s trainer, feared most: Kentucky Derby winnerWinning Colors was rolling along unchallenged with a clear lead.

Personal Ensign raced in mid-pack, but more than eight lengths back,farther behind than she ever had been at any point in any of her races.

Even worse, she seemed to be spinning her wheels in the boggy going.McGaughey had worried also about the possibility of a muddy track, andnow, as all his worries had so starkly materialized, he could only watchas Personal Ensign ran indifferently, unresponsive to all Romero’s efforts,no matter what the jockey tried, and to all his requests, no matter howsweetly he asked.

Before the race, McGaughey’s instructions to Romero, as the jockeyrecalled, were succinct: “Whatever you do, don’t let that mare WinningColors get away from you.” It didn’t occur to them, though, that PersonalEnsign, who also possessed natural speed, would be so uncomfortable onthe muddy track she couldn’t keep up.

“She was sliding. … She wasn’t biting the bit,” Romero said, “and therewas nothing in my hands. She wasn’t giving me any pressure.”

Romero put himself into a rhythm with the great filly, tried shaking herup, jiggling the reins and putting pressure on the bit. But Personal Ensignwould have none of it, declining to pick up the bridle.

Although he recognized there was a problem, Romero didn’t panic,which placed him in a small minority. For most people, it was impossibleto watch without feeling the distressing approach of an anticlimax. Of allthe people at Churchill Downs that day, Romero had to be of the few whodidn’t give up on Personal Ensign as the field entered the second turn,one of the few who believed in her chances for remaining unbeaten.

“Thank God, I didn’t,” he said, pointing out that Personal Ensignbecame more comfortable and “got a little better” as the race progressed.

Still, she was “just there,” as Romero put it, and not running eagerly orwith any purpose. She still didn’t pull. And so in the second turn, actingmore on instinct than from any plan, Romero popped Personal Ensignleft-handed with his whip, much earlier than he typically would hit ahorse.

“Sometimes you do some things, I don’t know why. God made me doit,” Romero said. “I reached back at the five-sixteenths pole and hit herleft-handed. Boom! It was an instinct I had. It made me do it. Why I did itthat early, I don’t know.”

Personal Ensign reacted to the tap on her left side by drifting out a pathor maybe two, and in doing that she found a firmer part of the muddysurface. Or at least she found a place where she could be comfortable.And she jumped into the bit as if she were diving into a pool. Feeling thesurge underneath him, feeling, in other words, the filly he had come toknow through three seasons of racing and with victories in such majorstakes as the Whitney, the Beldame and Frizette, Romero thought, “Whoa,now we’re going to have a horse race.”

Winning Colors still led, but Goodbye Halo began to cut into theleader’s advantage. On the outside, Personal Ensign found her best stride.The Kentucky Derby winner, the Kentucky Oaks winner, and an unbeatenchampion-yes, it was going to be quite a horse race to the wire, one ofthe most memorable, in fact, in Breeders’ Cup history.

“I went by Goodbye Halo, and I thought the race was finished,”Romero recalled, “and (then) I saw Winning Colors on the other side, andmy mare saw her, too, and my mare bit into the bit again and gave meanother (burst of) acceleration. The last part of it, I didn’t whip her. I justhand-rode her … because she was giving me all her best.”

Personal Ensign caught Winning Colors in the final stride of theDistaff, and for several anxious minutes the crowd held its collectivebreath for the results of the photo finish. It revealed a great filly winningby a nose to remain undefeated.

From one perspective, the key to that victory lay in Romero’s stubbornrefusal to give up on the filly’s chances. That led to his instinctive left-handedtap-tap in the turn, which ignited her resurgence. Looking backon her career, Romero described Personal Ensign as a great “fighter,” andshe certainly was; but, as most fans of the sport know, her jockey has hadto be quite a fighter himself to survive his various injuries and accidents.

Their tenacity united them.

Turf writers and horseplayers probably anthropomorphize horses toomuch and too frequently-that is, they assign to horses human emotions,motives and characteristics. But sometimes anthropomorphism can clarify,sometimes it can enable a deeper understanding, and that might be thecase here. That afternoon at Churchill, it was as if Personal Ensign “decided”that because Romero refused to give up she wouldn’t either. Yes,Personal Ensign was a fighter, but to what degree was her spirit galvanizedby the fighter who rode her throughout her career? And fromanother perspective, as Romero pointed out, the key to that Distaff victorywas quite simply and obviously the great filly’s determination. Thatgreat determination sent her in pursuit of the leader and then took her allthe way to the winner’s circle.

The book is available at