Next Year

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Tyler Gaffalione walked back to the jocks’ room after finishing second in Wednesday’s fifth. He was the happiest second-place jockey all meet.

“It’s a dream come true,” the 22-year-old said. “The nostalgia, you can just feel it here, as you’re walking on the grounds, you just think about all the great riders, the great horses and the great trainers who have been here, to be here on any day is amazing.”

So far, Gaffalione has been here three days of the meet, just as an experiment, a get-your-feet-wet stint. The Florida-based jockey won his Saratoga debut July 24, came back to finish second in his only ride July 26 and returned to ride five races Wednesday, picking up a second. In between trips, he won six races from 24 rides at Gulfstream Park.

“I love it,” Gaffalione said. “I can definitely see myself coming here full time next year.”

He had his choice this year and decided against it. Agent Matt Muzikar wanted to come to New York this spring, but Gaffalione decided he wasn’t ready. Yes, you read that correctly, the 22-year-old jockey talked the 48-year-old agent out of coming to Saratoga. Grounded? Gaffalione is rooted deeper than a California redwood.

“I just didn’t feel like I was ready, mentally or physically,” he said. “We were just getting into some barns but we weren’t established, I just want to get another year of experience and just try to learn as much as I can before I take the next step. When I come here, I don’t ever want to go back.”

Muzikar, who began working as Gaffalione’s agent after handing him his number at Aqueduct on Thanksgiving, thinks the same way.

“I told him he was over-thinking it, he was waffling, I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want you to make the decision half-heartedly, I want you to go 1,000 percent.’ He decided to stay here, which is fine,” Muzikar said from Florida Wednesday evening. “He’s been bouncing around and going places. It’s all good experience, he hasn’t traveled that much, it’s good for him to take it all in gradually.”

Since making his career debut in 2014, Gaffalione hasn’t done anything gradually. He won 28 races his first year, won 217 races and an Eclipse Award in 2015, won 208 races in his third season and he’s already won 187 races, ridden in the Kentucky Derby and is about to rip past his $6.4 million earnings figure from last year. He’s back at Gulfstream to ride four Thursday and nine Friday. He flies to Mountaineer to ride five stakes, including Patch in the West Virginia Derby, Saturday. He’ll be back here to ride Disco Partner in the Fourstardave.

Saratoga full time? Put it on the list.

“He’s a great kid,” Muzikar said. “He’s very aware and astute, if he feels like he made a mistake, he’ll go to the jocks’ room and send me a text, ‘I screwed up.’ He’s special, I don’t know, man, he’s a gentleman, he’s respectful, he’s classy, he’s the whole package.”

Born in Davie, Florida, Gaffalione followed his father who followed his father into the jocks’ room. He didn’t have a choice, kicking around the jocks’ room at Gulfstream Park and Calder, watching replays with his father, walking back and forth to the track as his father galloped 10 a day at the old Hooper farm in Ocala, shed-rowing horses when he was 4, riding the pony, mucking stalls, idolizing Jerry Bailey, Jose Santos, John Velazquez, Javier Castellano and all the other greats.

 “Everybody, I watched them all,” Gaffalione said. “I’m a student of the game, I slept, ate, everything horse racing. I had an Equicizer, I would ride along with the races every day.”

Pumping away on the mechanical horse and dreaming about winning a race at Saratoga – finding cover, saving ground on the turn, knowing who to follow, spinning off the turf, rolling past your hero…oh, that happened.

“We were turning into the stretch and I still had some horse, I hit him left handed and he gave me a surge, I was like, ‘Oh man I’m going to get him now,’ it was like winning the biggest race of my life,” said Gaffalione about winning on Alien Invasion July 24. “At the eighth pole, I was getting to him with every stride, to pass Jose Ortiz, he’s one of my idols. Right away, galloping out, Jose said, ‘Atta boy, Tyler. Congrats man.’ Then when we came back, he high fived me and gave me a hug, it makes you feel a part of something. Living the dream. Everybody says it, but I really am.”

After finishing seventh on Seafire in the eighth Wednesday, two boys swarmed Gaffalione and asked for a pair of goggles. Gaffalione politely declined. 

The kid turned to his friend, “He told me, next year.”

Count on it.

Click here to read the full version of The Saratoga Special.