Bull Jockey: Geraghty skips rodeo, takes 2012 lead

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Ross Geraghty asked Tom Voss the question, and got the answer. “Do you need me anymore?” the jockey said. “Probably not,” the trainer replied.

Like that, a short partnership of success and failure ended in mid-season 2010 – less than a year after it began. Geraghty left the Maryland barn, and thought about his next steps. The Irishman had come to the United States to ride for Voss in September 2009, quickly won six races and then endured a rough start to 2010 with a single winner through the spring. The slump bred a change, and Voss gave rides to Paddy Young.

“We never had a bad word, there were no bad feelings, but it wasn’t working out,” said Geraghty. “So I left.”

And very nearly changed his career. He left on a Tuesday, did some checking and found a rodeo in Pennsylvania that started Friday. Geraghty – lifelong horseman, jockey, Irish as Guinness – was going to ride bulls. A big fan of the Professional Bull Riders events, he’d watched them on television and seen them in person during a stop in Baltimore. But he’d never ridden a bull. Still hasn’t.

“I rode a cow out in a field once, that’s about it, but I always wanted to try it, and I thought then that I had nothing to lose, nothing else to do really,” he said. “I’m a huge fan and I want to do it someday. I was going to do it then.”

Instead, he took a phone call from trainer Michele Sanger, who needed someone to exercise horses, maybe ride a race. Owner Frank Bonsal had some horses that needed work. Trainer Jazz Napravnik needed help and had a mare she liked a little. Geraghty rode a winner for Don Yovanovich that fall, won a race at Far Hills on Green Velvet for Napravnik, endured a 3-for-46 season, but got by, kept working. Last year, Geraghty won the Iroquois maiden for Sanger and the Fair Hill filly/mare stakes for Napravnik in the spring. By fall, the jockey was riding for the powerhouse Irv Naylor stable trained by J.W. Delozier and finished with seven wins and more than $300,000 in purse earnings.

And now, Geraghty leads all NSA jockeys with 10 wins through June 14.

“Before he landed the job (with Naylor), J.W. had a 3-year-old and asked if I would school him,” Geraghty said. “Then he asked if I would be interested in a job riding out in the morning. Since then, neither of us has looked back. We work really well together. I felt like the riding part was there for me, I never questioned that. The opportunity wasn’t there and now it is.”

Naylor, Delozier and Geraghty opened the spring with a stakes win at Aiken by Pullyourfingerout, and doubled at Colonial Downs June 2 to put a lid on the first 10 weeks of the 2012 year. Geraghty won eight for the barn, and picked up two spares (when Xavier Aizpuru was injured) aboard Maya Charli for Jack Fisher.

“It makes a big difference to have a stable on your side,” said Geraghty, brother to top Irish jockey Barry. “It’s a huge team there, we all work together. Everyone’s enjoying it. Everyone works hard. It’s nice to win, we all sit down, clap each other on the back over breakfast sandwiches and doughnuts, but then we get back to work. A lot of work goes into it.”

The would-be rodeo cowboy leads a contentious battle atop the jockeys’ standings, completed in close order by Brian Crowley, Jeff Murphy, Darren Nagle (eight wins each) and Willie McCarthy (seven).

The group took advantage of a broken arm suffered by Paddy Young. The three-time defending champion went down in his first ride of the year at the Carolina Cup in March and didn’t ride again until Colonial – where he won aboard Eagle Beagle. The victory felt good, but he’s nine behind Geraghty with essentially half the season gone.

“Paddy had a tough spring, nobody wants to watch races, but I’m delighted that he’s back,” said Geraghty. “He’s not three-times champion for nothing. He’s a very good rider.”

But probably not good enough to get a fourth consecutive championship.

“To be honest, no,” Young said when asked if he could catch the leaders. “It’s not anything I’m even thinking about. I just want to get back to riding well and see where it goes. I was lucky last year and had 16 winners in the spring. Nobody’s done that this year, but I think it will be impossible (to catch up).”

Young is just happy to be riding. In his first jump mount of 2012, he broke his right arm in a fall from Darkwatch in the Carolina Cup’s maiden hurdle. He underwent surgery, endured some scary follow-up appointments and was cleared to ride two days before getting a leg up on Eagle Beagle. The duo won together for the seventh time. Young credited the horse and the doctors.

“He was coming back from an injury too, so I wasn’t thinking he’d win, but he felt as good as he did before,” Young said. “At the appointments, the doctor kept saying ‘you’re not ready, you’re not ready.’ I only got cleared on Thursday. He laughed when I told him I wanted to ride a race, I had to tell him I understood the risk.”

He bought extra win photos for his medical team.

Logjam at the top

Behind Geraghty, the jockeys’ race looks like the line at a Dublin Starbucks – crowded, anxious, competitive and Irish.

Nagle put together wins from all over the trainers’ list (Sheppard, Jack Fisher, Richard Valentine, Leslie Young, Allison White, Liam McVicar) and condition book (hurdle, professional timber, amateur timber, stakes, maiden claimers). He will pick up summer mounts for Sheppard.

Murphy rides first call for Doug Fout and won two races with leading filly/mare Quiet Flaine, but also gathered two from timber specialist Swimming River. First-time hurdle starter Extraextraordinary won at Colonial Downs to point to big things. The Virginia resident rode his first American race in 2002, captured an apprentice title along the way, but has never won more than nine races in a single season. That could change soon.

“First time ever, hopefully I can keep it going,” Murphy said while leading the jockey’s standings earlier in the spring. “I would love to be leading rider one day. Dougie has some nice horses, you can’t be anything but confident going to the races. When things are going right, you just go out there like they’re all going to win.”

McCarthy came to the U.S. for a few rides in 2009, winning once for Jimmy Day while subbing for an injured Liam McVicar. He did not ride here in 2010, but endured a 1-for-44 season last year. He’s turned it around completely in 2012, with seven wins from his first 35 rides.

Main client Arch Kingsley fed McCarthy live horses from South Carolina and they’ve won twice with the improving Baltic Shore. Like many of the others, McCarthy built a career on point-to-point success in Ireland and professional rides in England. The career found a middle ground, hung a bit, and McCarthy turned to American opportunities. This winter, he broke yearlings in Florida for Vinery and schooled steeplechasers in Camden weekly. Now, he works for flat trainer Michael Matz at Fair Hill. McCarthy gave partial credit for his successful spring to former champion jockey Kingsley (the two have watched videos and discussed tactics together), plus a familiarity with the circuit.

“The racing over here is a bit faster, the ground conditions are going to be a bit faster,” he said. “Time-wise they mightn’t be faster, but they ride faster. A 2-mile race at home, you could drop in at the back of the field and take your time. Here, you tend to have to be in the first three or five to be in with a chance. They don’t come back as much. It took me a little while. I like to think I’m better. I’m improving, just trying to bang out winners.”

The jockey picked up a stakes score for Voss aboard Ballet Boy at Radnor, and hopes to see more outside interest as the year progresses.

Crowley is last of the top five in terms of mounts, but he’s won eight and heads to the summer with the backing of Sheppard’s always competitive barn. They won six races together at Saratoga the past two seasons and will no doubt be factors again.

“You really need to be part of a barn that’s going well to pick up wins in summer racing,” said Young. “Ross seems to have the quality with J.W.’s horses, but no barn is dominant right now. Sheppard and Brian are tough at Saratoga, Darren is riding well and he picks up a lot of outside rides. Willie McCarthy is doing well and Jeff’s gotten good horses to ride. It’s very competitive at the moment.”