NEW ORLEANS — We’re always suckers for personal redemption stories.
Robert Downey Jr. spent the better part of a decade dealing with substance abuse, arrests, rehab, relapses and more rehab. Last weekend, his “Iron Man 3” took in $174 million.
The jury’s still out on Tyrann Mathieu, whom the Arizona Cardinals felt was worth a third-round draft pick when much of the rest of the NFL had red-flagged him over substance abuse.
And then there’s Robby Albarado.
Last Saturday, a year to the day from when the Lafayette-born jockey seemingly had done major damage to his career with his second arrest on domestic assault charges — this one against his ex-girlfriend and the first one a few months earlier against his now ex-wife — Albarado rode longshot Golden Soul to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby behind favored Orb.
The only thing better would have been actually winning. And Albarado and Golden Soul will get a second shot at Orb next month in the Belmont Stakes.
“It was nice,” Albarado said Wednesday from Louisville, Ky., where he’s competing at Churchill Downs. “Just to get to ride in the Derby is always an honor.
“And then you see how it worked out. It was a pretty good day.”
That’s something Albarado hadn’t experienced a lot of in recent months.
He was once a top-10 jockey, second in the country in earnings in 2007 and 2008, winning the Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Curlin in ’07, with more than 4,000 victories, many of them at the Fair Grounds where he won seven riding titles.
Off the track, in 2004, Albarado had won the George Woolf Memorial Award, which goes to the jockey who demonstrates the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. His Robby Albarado Foundation was dedicated to helping the youth in his adopted hometown of Louisville, Ky.
But Albarado slipped to 33rd in 2011 and 48th last year, a figure that would have been even lower had not a court overturned his suspension by the Kentucky Racing Commission following his arrest and subsequent conviction on second assault charge.
As it was, some trainers and owners, wary that Albarado’s personal problems would affect his riding skills, backed off giving him mounts. In the business of racing, the horses are enough to worry about, much less out-of-control jockeys.
Hoping a change of scenery would help things last fall, Albarado opted for Gulfstream Park in Miami over the Fair Grounds, but he didn’t fare well there and finished the winter at Oaklawn Park with somewhat better results.
“Physically, I was as fit as I’ve ever been,” said Albarado, 39. “But I wasn’t getting enough good horses.
“It’s all about the opportunity on good horses in good races.”
That opportunity finally arose on Derby week.
Golden Soul, trained by New Orleanian Dallas Stewart, had just slipped into the Derby field, primarily because of a fourth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.
But three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel, Golden Soul’s rider in the Louisiana Derby, switched to Todd Pletcher-trained Revolutionary when Javier Castellano opted for Normandy Invasion.
So Stewart turned to Albarado.
“You wish the stuff that happened to him hadn’t happened, but it seemed like he was working his way through it,” Stewart said. “It’s the Kentucky Derby. You don’t put somebody on your horse that you don’t think can do the job.”
Golden Soul was 38-1, next-to-last in the betting. But as Albarado noted, in the Kentucky Derby, jockeys don’t worry about the odds.
In the race itself, Albarado followed the example of his fellow Louisiana native, Borel, and stayed on the rail.
Then at the head of the stretch, Albarado moved Golden Soul toward the middle, passing everyone except Orb while holding off Revolutionary.
“I did what’s worked for Calvin three times and didn’t get touched the whole race,” Albarado said. “When he moved to the middle, he got good clearance and just took off again.”
Golden Soul is skipping the Preakness to concentrate on the Belmont on June 8.
For Albarado, it’s back to work Thursday at Churchill where he will have six mounts in nine races.
“I’ve been a top-10 jock and I’m going to get back to that level,” he said. “Things have gone down a little these last couple of years, but I’m just going to keep grinding it out and working hard.
“That’s what got me there in the beginning.”
Albarado will not discuss his personal or legal problems. His foundation is inactive.
“What happens in my home is my business and not anybody else’s,” he said. “I never did anything wrong at work.
“The other stuff’s behind me.”
For his sake, we hope that’s so.