Commentary

Nothing but the Derby facts

Updated: April 19, 2013, 1:30 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Jockeyology, or the study of jockeys, can preoccupy idle minds this time of year. All the Kentucky Derby contenders have had their final preparatory outings, displayed their talents, earned their points, and the field for America's most famous race is virtually set, but the jockeys are still, well, jockeying.

Jockey John Velazquez and Verrazano
NYRA/Adam CoglianeseVerrazano will have Velazquez in the irons for the Derby.
John Velazquez has decided to ride Verrazano instead of Orb in the Kentucky Derby. Javier Castellano has settled on Normandy Invasion rather than Revolutionary, who will be ridden instead by Calvin Borel. And Rosie Napravnik has returned to Mylute, replacing Shaun Bridgmohan. It all might sound like the ongoing plot of a titillating soap opera, and such a horse-hopping narrative indeed might appeal to some fans, but that alone wouldn't interest dedicated jockeyologists. They attach great importance to all this shuffling and maneuvering because of a bedrock assumption that jockeyology can assist in finding the Derby winner.

Well, it can't. Or at least jockeyology won't be any more successful in discovering the Derby winner than, say, astrology, vulcanology, dermatology, or parapsychology. And the basic reason jockeyology fails is that, to paraphrase Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the jockeys have opinions, but only the horses have the facts.

With three weeks remaining until a multitude's cheer punctuates the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" at Churchill Downs, Velazquez and Castellano made their choices. And if on April 28, in his final pre-Derby workout, Normandy Invasion slips and slides around the Churchill Downs oval as if he has bed slats for shoes, will Castellano start looking over his shoulder for the horse racing gremlins? Maybe. And if a few days later, before a national television audience, Verrazano draws the No. 1 post position for the Derby, will Velazquez suddenly have a queasy, what-was-the-expiration-date-on-that-cream-I-put-in-my-coffee feeling in the pit of his stomach? Probably.

And it's not just timing that makes jockeyology an unreliable handicapping tool. Jockeys aren't just choosing between horses, but also among stables. And so of course Velazquez chose to ride Verrazano, the winner of the Wood Memorial, in the Kentucky Derby rather than Orb, the winner of the Florida Derby. Verrazno's trainer, Todd Pletcher, has the most powerful stable in the country at the moment. And of the 20 stakes races Velazquez has won this year, 11 have been for Pletcher. But for years, their partnership has been among the most powerful in racing. To ignore that fact would have been worse than ungrateful; it would have been unwise. Velazquez, of course, also rides Point Of Entry, who, like Orb, is trained by Shug McGaughey. And so the decision to ride Verrazano was probably stressful, maybe difficult, but certainly inevitable. Regardless of the horses' relative talents, Velazquez was going to decide to ride Verrazano, if only because people routinely convince themselves to believe whatever's necessary for their own comfort.

The decision to ride Normandy Invasion, the runner-up in the Wood Memorial, in Kentucky rather than Revolutionary, the winner of the Louisiana Derby, was very difficult. Matt Muzikar, Castellano's agent, explained that he and the leading jockey in the country (through Thursday, in terms of purse money won) discussed the decision at length. For most races, ordinary races, Muzikar said, he'll make the call about which horse to ride. But, of course, this was no ordinary race or decision.

"We thought Normandy Invasion ran an incredible Wood," Muzikar said, "and so we just had to go with the horse that we thought would give us the best opportunity to get into the winner's circle … But it wasn't an easy decision. The horses are evenly matched. Look at the numbers, look at their talent, and they're very close.

Jockey Kevin Krigger and Trainer Doug O'Neill
Benoit PhotoDoug O'Neill hopes another unheralded jockey, Kevin Krigger, can bring him a Kentucky Derby victory.
Last year, Castellano had his choice of Algorithms, Union Rags and Discreet Dancer in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. That wasn't easy either, Muzikar said, but was, as it turned out, profoundly discouraging. Castellano and Muzikar went with Algorithms, who, on the morning entries were taken, was injured. Union Rags won the Fountain of Youth and, four months later, went on to capture the Belmont Stakes.

Muzikar, who has been an agent for 16 years and has represented such many successful riders, said he felt like somebody "kicked" him in the stomach when he heard about Algorithms' splint injury, which eventually led to the unbeaten colt's retirement. That was the toughest decision he and a rider ever had to make, he said, until this year. Deciding to ride Normandy Invasion was equally difficult.

Any jockey who's in demand, Muzikar said, will from time to time make a mistaken decision, go the wrong direction, opt for the wrong horse. It's inevitable, especially given the myriad variables and the timing, which requires an early decision. And then, of course, there's the jockeys-have-opinions-but-horses-have-the-facts problem.

That's why jockeyology doesn't work, except as a soap opera, and never has. Derby history is replete with jockeyology failures. Although he had won both the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby on Thunder Gulch, Mike Smith gave up the mount on the colt and committed instead to ride Talkin Man in the Kentucky Derby. After romping in the Arkansas Derby, Demons Begone was dedstined to be favored in Kentucky, and he was, at 2-1. And so, of course, Pat Day opted to ride Demons Begone rather than Alysheba.

Over the next two weeks, trainers with horses aimed at the Kentucky Derby will explain that every workout is "perfect" and just what they wanted. Every Derby horse is peaking at just the right moment, according to his trainer, of course. And all those speedsters don't really need the early lead to win or even to be near the lead, but will rate nicely and comfortably, thank you. All the Derby horses will handle the Churchill surface quite nicely, love it actually, and post position doesn't have to matter, and none of the trainers would trade places with anybody. Nope, wouldn't trade places with anybody. And all these comments and evaluations and positions will augment the jockeyology swirling around Churchill Downs in what by May 4 will be a cyclone of confusion.

But that afternoon, after about two minutes or so and 1 1/4 miles, here's what will be certain: That jockeys, trainers, handicappers and scribblers all have opinions, and horses have the facts.