The jockeys have always intrigued me the most. Flat or jump, doesn’t matter. I’ve been there, I guess that’s part of it, trying to control adrenaline, normalize risk, temper hunger, stymie pressure, quell fear, stave off the simple march of time that gets all jockeys in the end.
I’ve written about their good days, their bad days, their good sides, their bad sides, all of their good rides, a few of their bad rides. I’ve written about some of their beginnings and most of their endings. I’ve written about their crescendos and their crashes, their stakes and their suicides, their favorite horses and their least favorite races.
For the most part, I think I’ve gotten it right.
I wrote a story about a jockey who was battling for his first title at Saratoga, and John Velazquez corrected me, “That’s not a good guy.” I snapped back, “I never said he was a good guy. I just said he was leading the standings.” I was fairly confident I didn’t portray him as a good guy. I scurried to the racing office and read the column again, nowhere did it say he was a good guy. I felt better.
I talked to veteran Cornelio Velasquez while he was sparring with Kent Desormeaux for a Saratoga riding title. I asked him why he rode so many races, Velasquez got his license from his wallet and pointed to the word, jockey. “I’m a jockey, that’s what it says. That’s what I do.” I loved that.
I’ve written countless stories on champion steeplechase jockey Paddy Young, covering each of his five titles, his dalliances with retirement, his devastating injury this spring. That last one hurt, but it sure felt better when I saw him at the races yesterday. I’ll write another one about him.
I wrote about Jonathan Kiser, Cort Marzullo, Brooks Durkee, Garrett Gomez and Chris Antley, all gone way too soon. I felt like I offered closure, for them, for me, for their families. I wish I could have changed those stories.
I haven’t always gotten the stories right.
I wrote about Shane Sellers and Mike Smith’s unbreakable bond after the 1997 Breeders’ Cup when Smith rode Sellers’ big horse, Skip Away, to win the Classic, only to learn later that their friendship bent and maybe broke. I once wrote about a jump jockey who had his life together and was accused of writing fiction, I guess I got that one wrong. I wrote about Gomez beating his demons, sadly, they eventually beat him. I wrote about my friendship with Chip Miller that, painfully, has faded into dust. I’ll need more than 800 words to explain that one.
There were others, I’m sure, when I got it wrong and nobody was as vocal as Velazquez. They might be right.
Last week, I talked to jump jockey Darren Nagle, moments after he won an allowance race aboard Mutasaawy, to further pad his lead at the top of the 2017 standings. I’ve had my disagreements with Nagle, as I’ve watched him take missteps, or what I consider missteps, in his riding career. I still root for him, as I root for every jockey, for their safety, for their sanity, for their stability.
Over the years, Nagle has offered quotes about horses, races and that’s about all. He went down that road last week, explaining the pace of the allowance race, the move he made leaving the backside, the feeling the promising novice gave him. And then I asked him a final question, just to see where it would go.
“You’re winning a lot of races this year, are you doing anything different?”
Expecting an answer about horses, opportunities or tactics, I got a lot more.
“I’m a lot happier this year, a lot fitter, I don’t kill myself with the weight any more, trying to keep myself at 138, 140 all the time, I walk around like a zombie, I’m pissed off, I don’t get along with anybody. I just let my weight go up a bit, I feel stronger, I feel happier, I feel better. I manage my work week a bit better now, I freelance, if I need to do something else, I’ll do it. Come back from racing in Tennessee on Saturday and go working on a Sunday, you can only do that for so long,” Nagle said. “I’m getting a bit older, I’ve been doing it a long time, I haven’t always done it correctly, I wish I had a bit more advice from other people. Things are going well, a lot of good riders are hurt, I’m probably getting opportunities that I normally wouldn’t have gotten, thankfully I’ve taken advantage of them rather than letting them spurn.”
Nagle rides All The Way Jose in the New York Turf Writers Cup today. Maybe he’ll win it, maybe he won’t, but it sounds like he’ll respect the opportunity, the moment, at least more than he once did. I hope I’m right about that one.