Over a career of more than 3,700 wins, famed jockey Julie Krone encountered four kinds of horses: the playful horse, the worrier, the claustrophobic and the shy. Her tactics would change depending on the horse’s personality.
Pat Day has a “God-given” talent for communicating with his horse what he wants it to do.
And Jerry Bailey analyzes each race: how the horses will run and where each will be positioned, insights that brought him victory in big races.
In their new book, “Ride to Win: An Inside Look at the Jockey’s Craft” (Jockey Talk 360, $20), Bob Fortus, a former racing reporter for The Times-Picayune, and Gary West, a longtime reporter for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, take a close look at the hard work, sweat, frustration and success of top jockeys.
The book also contains some nuggets of wisdom for those who like to bet a few bucks on the occasional race.
It may come as a surprise to the casual racing fan to learn that jockeys compete for the best horses to ride. Each jockey has an agent, and like movie stars, they negotiate and pursue the best vehicle for their talent.
Astute gamblers pay close attention to changes in riders from race to race, noting when a more qualified jockey is assigned to a horse or when a horse gets a “gate rider” who excels at breaking quickly from the starting gate. A lot of “jockeying” goes into which jockeys ride which horse, as Fortus and West explain.
Race fans have been known to base their bets on jockeys: Whether they’re still riding the same horse as the last time they were out, for example, or riding a lesser horse to show allegiance to a certain trainer.
The common thread running through the book is the athletic ability of the jockeys interviewed and their intense desire to compete.
“What people don’t realize is how great the jockeys are as athletes, and how much work they put into it,” Fortus said.
Staying competitive can come with a high physical price. Jockeys must maintain a certain weight in order to ride, and severe weight-loss methods can have severe consequences. Jockeys run, purge, starve and get in the “hot box” to sweat off weight.
Randy Romero, a Hall of Fame jockey from Erath, Louisiana, fought his weight while riding some of the greatest horses of the 1980s. In one tragic event, Romero suffered burns over 80 percent of his body when rubbing alcohol on his body touched a bulb next to the sauna at Oaklawn Park. Romero was back riding seven months later.
Other riders have suffered devastating accidents on the track. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the “Ride to Win” will go to The Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.
Fortus caught the horseracing bug as a college student at the University of Michigan. Fortus and friends would make occasional trips to the old Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park. He came to New Orleans to teach math at Tulane University, but his love of racing won out, and before long he was working for The Times-Picayune as a sports writer. He covered local sports with a focus on horse racing for more than 30 years.
In 2012 Fortus left the newspaper, and he and West began the three-year project that became “Ride To Win.”
As the duo writes, the lessons jockeys learn aren’t taught by college professors but by veterans of the track.
In the book, three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel relates how his brother, the trainer Cecil Borel, taught him to “save ground,” or guide his mount the shortest way around the track. In a race early in his career, Calvin recalls, he gave one of Cecil’s runners a wide trip in a race. After the race, when Calvin was cooling down the horse by walking it around a shed row, Cecil kept moving some barn trash cans farther and farther out, making the walk longer each time.
“And you know,” Borel says, “I did learn a lot that night. And that’s why I always try to save ground.” Lesson learned, and now bettors call him Calvin Bo-Rail.
Fortus and some jockeys featured in “Ride to Win” will be at the Fair Grounds Saturday, Dec. 12, signing books.