Commentary

Best rides in modern Derby history

Jockeys can make the difference between a Ky. Derby champ and an also-ran

Updated: April 2, 2014, 5:12 PM ET
By Steve Davidowitz | Special to ESPN.com

No doubt, Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte rode a perfect race when he was aboard Secretariat for that fantastic colt's record-setting Kentucky Derby win in 1973. But the great Thoroughbred champion was so strong that Turcotte admits that he didn't need to do much.

"I pointed Secretariat in the right direction," he said, leaving out the fact that the great colt looped the field in two spectacular moves to win that historic Derby.

Racing is an exciting and dangerous sport, especially for the lightweight athletes who risk life and limb riding these 1,000-pound, high-strung Thoroughbreds in Derby fields of 15 to 20 horses.

Other Derbies since the 1950s certainly were dominated by the right horse in the right place at the right time: Swaps, for instance, simply outran Nashua in the '55 Derby, and Dust Commander effortlessly scored a 5-length win on an off track he relished in 1970. Different riders could have been aboard those Derby winners on those particular days without any change in the outcomes.

But over my lifetime, there have been several Kentucky Derby victories that were directly pulled off by the small-sized humans who delivered huge performances on horseback.

Racing is an exciting and dangerous sport, especially for the lightweight athletes who risk life and limb riding these 1,000-pound, high-strung Thoroughbreds in Derby fields of 15 to 20 horses, in front of 130,000 live spectators and millions more on television. They may or may not be on the best horse, but every little mistake made will be magnified by slow-motion replays and will draw a million words in newsprint.

That is why I have great admiration for the jockeys -- who in some specific cases were mostly responsible for getting their horses to the Churchill Downs winner's circle.

While the list below is subjective, here are the five best Kentucky Derby rides I have ever seen. Without the special performances by these jockeys, I doubt seriously the horses they rode would have won the world's most famous race.

The descriptions come directly from original Daily Racing Form and/or Equibase official result charts (with precious few added words inserted by me). This, to objectively describe the extraordinary performances with minimal embellishment. At the very least, each description paints a vivid picture.

Jacinto Vasquez rides Foolish Pleasure to 1975 Kentucky Derby win

Trackman's Comments: "Away in good order, [Foolish Pleasure] was taken under stout restraint [to avoid a jam up at the first turn], maneuvered midway on the second turn, where he continued to advance steadily [between horses] into the stretch and was eased out wider to engage the leaders [Avatar and Diabolo.] After disposing of those two while sharply roused in mid stretch, Foolish Pleasure drew off under intermittent urging."

This was a closely matched, contentious group and Vasquez simply outrode Hall of Famers Bill Shoemaker (aboard Avatar) and Laffit Pincay Jr. (aboard Diabolo) with well-timed moves in and out of traffic to prevail.

Chris McCarron's ride aboard 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba

Trackman's Comments: "Carefully handled when caught in close quarters between horses just after the start, [Alysheba] advanced steadily [between horses and while angling wide] to reach contention approaching the stretch, [where in midstretch] he stumbled [badly] when he clipped the heels of [front-running] Bet Twice; came out to avoid that rival again leaving the furlong grounds and proved best under strong handling."

You really had to see this race to believe that Alysheba did not go tumbling to the ground, which might have caused a major pileup and tragedy. McCarron was sensationally athletic to not only avoid that calamity but to get Alysheba back into the race and win it. I highly recommend a trip to the Kentucky Derby Museum or the YouTube Website to see this remarkable performance by a great racehorse and an equally great rider.

Jerry Bailey's ride aboard 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone

Trackman's Comments: "[Off slowly], Grindstone made no headway until he commenced to rally approaching the end of the backstretch, worked his way between tightly bunched horses along the inside around the far turn, angled out five wide entering the stretch and finished strongly under Bailey's urging to wear down Cavonnier by a nose while trying to drift out to the middle of the track."

Jerry Bailey certainly had his hands full with this colt, one that never would win another race.

Calvin Borel's ride aboard 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird

Trackman's Comment: "Bumped and in a bit tight after the break, [Mine That Bird] was unhurried for a half mile, while far back [in 19th place] along the inside, settled [suddenly on the final turn] with 3 furlongs to go, and moved with a rush while kept on the rail avoiding traffic, came around 16th place finisher Atomic Traffic with a quarter mile to go, quickly angled back to the inside with 3/16 to go; moved through a small opening inside [seventh-place finisher] Join The Dance approaching the furlong marker; took over leaving the final furlong and drew off under steady handling."

No doubt the only jockey in the world who could have won this race with this 50-1 shot was Calvin "Bo-Rail" Borel. He built a Hall of Fame career around his daring, rail-skimming rides. This was his second of three Kentucky Derby victories from 2007 through 2010.

Bill Shoemaker's ride aboard 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand

Trackman's Comment: "Ferdinand was bothered following the start, dropped well back while lacking room along the inside racing to the first turn [as Shoemaker stood up in the saddle], came out while beginning to advance between horses entering the backstretch, [circled rivals] to reach a contending position, angled to the inside of the leaders after splitting horses through the upper stretch, moved to the lead leaving the furlong pole and drew away under left hand pressure."

Because Bill Shoemaker was 54 years old and seemed to have lost his skills while overdue for retirement, his courageous performance aboard Ferdinand remains the greatest ride I have ever seen in or out of the Kentucky Derby.

This and the other rides cited above would be good viewing should you visit the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, or pull them up on YouTube. Weeks after it happened, the great golfer Jack Nicklaus openly said Shoemaker's performance had "inspired" him in his remarkable sixth victory at the prestigious Masters Tournament. It has continued to inspire many in all walks of life to stay focused on everything important as the years relentlessly move along.

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