Jumping Man

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Vintage Xavier Aizpuru, the ride to get All Together home first in an optional-claiming steeplechase here Aug. 1 involved a cone-skimming trip around the final turn, a never-give-up aggression that produced his horse with a chance at the last fence and a hard-pumping finish that saw out the partnership’s fourth win together. 

It was also Aizpuru’s first Saratoga win since he and All Together scored here two years ago.

The moment was not lost on the 38-year-old. Aizpuru rode for years in England and moved to America in 2004 in hopes of restarting his career. The plan paid off as he won championships in 2007 and 2008 and found a regular spot near the top of the standings. Now, he’s nearer to the end of his career than the beginning and, while catching his breath aboard All Together, he thought about it.

 “If I decided to call it a day walking back in on All Together that would be such a neat way to go out,” Aizpuru said. “Up here, on him, with a win.” 

Then the competitor spoke up. “But I like this filly next week. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”

The filly (actually a mare) was Take Her Tothe Top, a maiden trainer Jack Fisher was aiming for the $75,000 Mrs. Ogden Phipps stakes a week later. Aizpuru rode her to two seconds this spring, and thought she had a chance despite the step up in class. A week later, he took a leg up on Take Her Tothe Top from Fisher and produced another score – improving to 2-for-3 at Saratoga and 4-for-19 on the year. A regular in New York on the flat with Alan Goldberg, the daughter of More Than Ready was happy to be back at a racetrack, accelerating through a crowd in the stretch and winning by 3 ¼ lengths over The Grey Express. 

“When I was going through my rides (before the meet) she was the one I liked the most,” Aizpuru said. “I’m not surprised All Together pulled out one of his old performances but this filly was running with confidence coming into this. She’s got that little bit of flat speed. I had to sit in behind the group on the home turn but when the gap opened up she had the speed to get through there. Here, that’s huge, absolutely huge.”

Like he did after the win aboard All Together, Aizpuru thought about Saratoga, the past, the present, the future. As it does for winners in races without jumps, Saratoga matters for the steeplechase players. It’s big time, big stage, big money, big impact. And with one race, sometimes two, a week the pressure can really mount.

Aizpuru and the other jockeys probably feel it more than anyone. They know the owners care about winning here. They know the trainers point horses specifically to Saratoga. They know there are that many more eyes on the races – live and via simulcast. 

“It’s very special, it always has been, it’s Saratoga, everybody’s here,” Aizpuru said. “This is the place you want to win races. To be part of the history of the place is unbelievable. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the winner’s circle a few times now.”

As they’ve done for decades, jump jocks take jobs at Saratoga and elsewhere as exercise riders. Aizpuru used to work for Graham Motion, rode out for Tony Dutrow and now gallops for Team Valor and trainer Rick Mettee at Fair Hill in Maryland. It’s common to see Bernie Dalton aboard horses for Dominick Schettino in the morning at Saratoga. Willie McCarthy works for Michael Matz. Darren Nagle rides (and even leads them up sometimes) for Jonathan Sheppard. The assignments breed crossover and Aizpuru feels it every summer.

“The trainers get more involved even if they’re just watching and the owners get more involved and it’s neat,” Aizpuru said. “I walked around after winning on All Together and lots of people congratulated me. They watched because they knew someone in the race. It’s really cool.”

Aizpuru grew up a long way from Saratoga, but still got that message early and tries to share it with anyone who will listen.

“When we’re trying to describe it to the people back home we describe it as our Cheltenham Festival,” Aizpuru said. “It’s obviously not on as grand a scale for (jump racing), but we get to come here every week and ride in big races in front of a nice crowd. We’re always so well looked after up here by everyone. I hope that New York racing realizes how much it means to us to be here and how much we appreciate being able to be here. I’m not sure we can ever get that point across enough but we try.”

And he’s not ready to stop trying.