Cup of Coffee: Legends

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The crowd stopped and looked up. It doesn’t happen very often, at least when there isn’t a bell involved. In the winner’s circle, a crowd assembled, a red carpet was unfurled, Tom Durkin began to explain, Jockey Legend Day. In a matter of steps, the sport’s history washed across the crowd, personal memories of big days and big scores recalled and savored.

Jorge Velasquez began the celebration, walking slowly out of the winner’s circle and made a left down the racetrack. Those epic battles, Affirmed and Alydar. Proud Truth in the Breeders’ Cup, broad shoulders pumping like pistons, a lizard on a log. Friday at the Museum Ball, he summed up being a retired jockey, “My mind says yes, my body says no.”

Eddie Maple came next, completing a three-step handshake with Velasquez at the end of the red carpet. Crème Fraiche in the Belmont, the release as he stood up in his irons, redemption. The quiet professional, the last to ride Secretariat.

Jose Santos in a khaki suit, flashed his smile, that thief-in-the-night smile. The one you remember after Manila, Funny Cide and the day he and P.G. Johnson shocked the world with Volponi.

Jean Cruguet, like he could still float above Seattle Slew tomorrow, walked delicately, daintily. I remember the day he rode a jump race, just to show he still had it.

Randy Romero pointed to the crowd, just a slow amble. The same poise and patience delivered aboard Personal Ensign in those waning strides of the Breeders’ Cup. If he panics, it’s over. Nothing’s changed, other than his health.

Nick Santagata, the fan favorite, still fast, hustling like he can’t find his keys and he’s late for dinner. More than 4,000 winners, the hard way.

Robbie Davis, still fit from galloping in the morning, pumped both fists. The consummate professional, the one who overcame his demons to make it, one of the happiest jockeys we’ve ever known.

Jacinto Vasquez, heavier and broader, made the long walk like he was walking in the park, nowhere to go. The rider of Ruffian, no jockey felt such delight and despair in one horse.

Jean-Luc Samyn, son of a pastry chef, every jocks’ room needs one Frenchman. He’s never changed, upbeat and steady. I still have the money he made us on John’s Call in the Sword Dancer.

Richard Migliore, we see him every day. Around our office, when desperate and unable to finish a column (like right now), we yell, “Give ’em the Mig.” That means get on your belly and scrub.

Chris McCarron, stumbled, it had to be the rug. As good as there has ever been, no jockey was better when the money was down.

Ramon Dominguez, the youngest of all the legends. He looks so healthy, so fit, the mystery of the brain. The best hands God ever made.

Manny Ycaza, lighter today than he was when he was riding, the oldest of them all at 76, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Asked to describe himself as a jockey, the often-suspended legend said, “I would have hated to ride against me. A hardcore hard rider, in regards to I wanted to win every race. I was not satisfied finishing second, it’s one thing to try your very best to win every race but to be totally focused and concentrating on the business at hand. That’s what I did.”

Ron Turcotte, the cruelest fate of all.

Laffit Pincay Jr., the toast of two coasts. As fit today as he was then, Pincay broke the record on wins and the standard on deprivation. I think of him every time I reach for a handful of peanuts.

Angel Cordero, last but not least, the king of Saratoga received the loudest ovation.

The 16 jockeys amassed over 75,000 victories and over $2 billion. Did Durkin really say billion? Of course, there were guys missing but in the history of the sport, it had to be the greatest collection of retired jockeys. To benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the celebration was exactly that, a celebration.

In an ongoing attempt to raise awareness, the PDJF put on another good show, celebrating the greats. With the help of NYRA, it was a moment to savor as post time for the sixth was delayed. Think about what you saw, what they’ve accomplished. The numbers will make you glaze over. But think about the horses they touched, the sacrifices they made to accomplish their goals, satisfy their dreams.

After the ceremony, the jockeys gathered amid a collection of horsemen, writers, photographers and officials. All fans.

Retired trainer Mike Hernandez stood in the back of the circle, holding an envelope. Asked, he opened the envelope and slid out a couple of win photos. There’s Turcotte on Fratello Ed winning the Sporting Plate, in front of a snow drift at Aqueduct February 20, 1978, there’s Cruguet aboard Seclusive winning the Determined Cosmic at Belmont Park September 23, 1978. Hernandez held them out, proud and nostalgic.

“I just thought I’d get them to sign them,” Hernandez said. “These guys are the greats. The greats. You know?”

Yes, we know.