The Colonial Cup: The Last Stop

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Colonia Cup morning. For American jump jockeys, this is it, the end of the line, the end of a long season that began in March and meandered through a dozen states, a weekend jigsaw puzzle of air miles and hard miles, highs and lows, bruises and bonanzas.

Some are already on the shelf, long since injured, waiting for a bone to mend or contemplating a new career. Robbie Walsh nurses a hip, a collarbone. Willie McCarthy cradles a broken arm, David Byrne, hurt in May, luckily walked away, the escape of the year. The ones still standing go through their tack bag one last time, holding up leathers to see if they’re still strong, stretching girths to see if they’re still elastic, checking off what’s there and taking notes of what needs to be replaced during the off-season. If there is an off-season, in this sport, this is where jockeys retire, after the Colonial Cup.

Is there one who walks into the room today who has already made the decision? You’ll never know – until after the races – they’ll go out today, ride hard, send down to the last like they’ve never hit the ground, young cavaliers, and then walk in the room, pull off their helmet for the last time, hand off a couple of girths to their comrade on the bench, keep their saddle for old-time’s sake, deliver silks to trainers who have put them on winners and losers and close a chapter – a book. 

For better or worse – I think better – American steeplechasing has a start and a finish. Starts and finishes offer moments to reflect, to take order. For jockeys, there is no moment like the Colonial Cup, the last gate before a respite, the last adrenaline rush for months. Part of you wants to get off the ride, to take a deep breath, to count your blessings, to eat breakfast in the morning. Then the other part doesn’t want it to end, you’re riding better than ever, your horses are running for you, trainers are calling you, business has never been better. Reflection can be dangerous, idle time can instill demons.

A few seasons ago, Paddy Young took order and reflected while standing under the tall pine trees at Springdale. Red had stained white earlier in the day as Young cracked his face off the head of Gustavian in the Colonial Cup but Young still staved off his friend Darren Nagle on the final day. Young said he would slow down the following season, he would back off, he wouldn’t ride every maiden claimer at every meet. I believed him, at least, for a few minutes. Young has already clinched this year’s title, his fifth, climbing another rung on the ladder of the greats. He rode a lot of maiden claimers. Today, he’ll go out and try to win the Colonial Cup on the deserving Gustavian and he’ll try to cajole a win out of a maiden, a filly and some others, he rides six on the card.

I wonder if he’s thinking about slowing down, backing off or is he thinking about his sixth title next year? Maybe, a little of both.