Commentary

The disappearing American jockey

Updated: May 3, 2013, 8:52 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Much is being made at this year's Kentucky Derby about Kevin Krigger's race and Rosie Napravnik's gender. Krigger can become the first black jockey to win the Derby since 1902, and Napravnik has a chance to become the first female rider ever to win the race. That's the focus now, but when it comes to race, gender and country of origin and Kentucky Derby jockeys, the real question someday might be, when will another American win the race?

It's hard to imagine an American jockey winning this year, and it's easy to foresee the drought continuing for many years to come.

It's only been three years since an American-born rider won the Derby. Louisiana native Calvin Borel won for the third time in four years when he guided Super Saver to victory in 2010. But it's hard to imagine an American jockey winning this year, and it's easy to foresee the drought continuing for many years to come. All across the country it is the Hispanic riders who now dominate the standings. They are talented and well-schooled and have left little room at the top for American-born jockeys.

Only seven of the 20 jockeys expected to ride in the Derby Saturday are American born. (I don't count Krigger and Victor Lebron, who are natives of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory). Only Borel, who will be aboard Revolutionary, is on a horse that appears to have any sort of serious chance. Of the seven, only Napravnik (25) and Robby Albardo (39) are under the age of 40.

Nationally, only two American-born riders -- Napravnik and Garrett Gomez -- are in the top 10 in money earned. The leading riders this year at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Keeneland, Santa Anita, Tampa Bay Downs and Laurel are all foreign born.

Mike Smith, who will ride Palace Malice in the Derby, and Gomez, who has the mount on Vyjack, are just about the only two American-born riders left who regularly pick up top mounts in major races. But Smith is 47 and Gomez, who is of Spanish descent, is 41. Neither figures to remain at the top of the sport much longer.

It wasn't that long ago the top jockeys in the country were virtually all American born. When Bill Shoemaker won the Derby in 1986 aboard Ferdinand he began a 15-year run during which only American jockeys won the race. The dominant riders in the sport were Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Jerry Bailey, Eddie Delahoussaye and Kent Desormeaux. But as those jockeys retired -- or in the case of Desormeaux, fell out of favor -- there were no new young riders from this country to replace them. The next wave of talent came from Puerto Rico (John Velazquez), Venezuela (Ramon Dominguez and Javier Castellano), the Dominican Republic (Joel Rosario), Peru (Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano) and even France (Julien Leparoux).

Jockey Rosie Napravnik
Horsephotos.comWill Rosie Napravnik be the catalyst that sets off a surge of female jockeys in the US?
No one has done more over the past few years to foster American riding talent than the retired Hall of Famer McCarron, a two-time Derby winner. Most of the Latin American countries have jockey schools and virtually all of the top Hispanic riders now in the U.S. are graduates of the riding academies in their native lands. McCarron figured aspiring U.S. jockeys were entitled to the same advantages and started the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky.

He believes it is has become increasingly difficult to find an American male who is small enough to become a jockey.

"As far as America is concerned, people have just gotten bigger," he said. "I don't know all the scientific facts, but I would have to think that with some people that come from Latin American countries don't receive as good a nutrition as our kids do here early in their lives, and that's why they may not wind up being as big. I also think more kids south of the border are introduced to horses at a young age and work around horses at a [younger] age than there are here."

McCarron also believes that the demise of the bush tracks in Louisiana have contributed to the lack of American jockeys. Louisiana used to have a number of unsanctioned tracks where kids as young as eight or nine would ride in races. Louisiana was a hotbed of American riding talent, producing stars like Desormeaux, Borel, Eddie Delahoussaye, Randy Romero and Robby Albarado. There are no bush tracks left, and the Louisiana pipeline has dried up.

If there is going to be a resurgence of American riding talent it would seem that it would have to come not from the next Chris McCarron or Jerry Bailey but from the next Julie Krone. It's probably not a coincidence that the best young U.S. rider out there is Napravnik, a female. There are a lot more 105-pound females than males, and there are an awful lot of little girls out there who fall in love with horses. Perhaps someday she will win a Derby, a victory not just for her gender but for her country.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com