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Sunday, October 24, 2010
Saddle instincts


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Last year, I rode a colt named Grazen in the California Cup Classic. We were on the lead going into the stretch and I had a pretty good shot of winning; everyone was high on this horse and he'd raced perfectly for me through the early going. All of the sudden he took this little bobble and before you knew it, I had to pull him up. He had torn his right front tendon.

You ask the vets, if I would have let him go on for another two or three jumps without stopping him, he'd have been done -- and not just done running. But I did what I had to do and pulled him up because something didn't feel quite right. Those actions, me following my first instinct, contributed to saving his life.

From the time I started riding, people always told me, "Never second-guess yourself." Because the second you second-guess yourself, things can go horribly wrong. So when I have a feeling that a horse is not right, I don't care whose horse it is, if I get that instinct at any point -- before, during, or after a race -- I go with it.

In Grazen's case, he was a horse that, for whatever reason, took a bad step in the race and had to be pulled up, a horse that felt perfectly fine going into it. I bring up that story to illustrate how important it is for a rider to trust his best judgment in every situation.

There's been a little buzz that started last Thursday when I took off a 9-year-old horse named Stream of Gold before a $10,000 claiming race at Keeneland. I had ridden the horse through the warm-up and things just didn't seem right. I asked the vet to take a look at him because he felt off, but the vet said he wasn't going to scratch him -- that he looked fine. I decided not to go against my gut feeling and declined to ride. Victor Lebron came out of the room to get on him, and he finished seventh for Mike Maker.

In a year, I can count on one hand the amount of times I'll ask a vet to gate-scratch a horse. And I ride anywhere from 700 to 1,200 races in a single season. A lot of these people are really good clients of mine and I'm trying my best to bring them success. I know how much time, effort and money it takes to get a horse to the races. I appreciate the opportunities to partner with them. I don't take the idea of gate-scratching a horse lightly. But let's say I'm wrong and the horse is OK. What's the worst that can happen? He lives to run another day. If I'm right and I ignore that instinct, the potential results aren't pleasant for anyone.

Yesterday, we had a meeting with the state vet about this issue. He was very accepting of what we had to say and very much in agreement when we were talking with him about the need to have a little more respect for what we feel. I'm not saying that we disrespect anything the vets do, we respect their experience and profession as well and we know they have a job to do, too. We just asked them to bear in mind that it's a little different when you're on horseback than when you're on the ground. Sometimes what they see on the ground is different from what we feel in the saddle.

It's kind of like when you're watching NASCAR on TV and the driver is going 200 mph, and you hear him saying over the headset, "I can hardly keep it on the road!" and "The wheels are shimmying!" Then the crew guys holler back, "It looks fine from out here!" The next thing you know, he hits the wall because there was something off and he couldn't keep it on the track. It's the same situation with us; sometimes things aren't always working as smoothly as they appear to be. So the vets agreed and said if we told them we felt a problem, they'd be more receptive about gate-scratching horses.

Up until the Thursday incident happened, I was riding quite a few horses for these connections. Last week alone I rode several for them. I was taken off Maker's horses for Friday and Saturday, so today I just took off the two I was entered to ride because I didn't want any more trouble. But if the one good thing to come out of the entire situation was a heightened awareness of the need for better communication between vets and the riders at the gate, then the slight upheaval was for the best.

And here's one more thought. When I go out there to get on these horses, they run their eyeballs out for me. They give me every last drop that they've got. I do this on a daily basis, and if any horse is going to go out there and run and put his life on the line and I get a feeling that he's not right, I'm not going to knowingly ask him to do so. That's the bottom line.