It’s jockey summer at Saratoga Race Course

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The jocks’ room here is cramped, often sounds like an interpreter’s room at the United Nations, and is home to one of the most decorated groups of horse riders I’ve ever seen.

John Velasquez, of Puerto Rico, and Javier Castellano, of Venezuela, are Hall of Famers. The Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, have won the Eclipse Award for Best Jockey four times. (Irad leads 3-1).

Last year’s winner was Dominican Joel Rosario.

Tyler Gaffglione, a Florida native from Kentucky, and Flavien Pratt, a Frenchman who recently arrived from California, fill out the room hosting 15 of the nation’s top 20 jockeys with wins.

With 17 minutes to go, the bell rings from the winner’s circle, echoing a time when public address systems didn’t exist, prompting the jockeys to run down the path from the jockeys’ room to the paddock.

Riders emerge in pairs in Day-Glo silks, goggles slung around their necks, crops tucked under their arms, then head out to various numbered trees to meet the horses’ owners. Smiles are exchanged and brief instructions are given.

The trainer grabs each rider’s ankle and lifts them onto the horse’s back. And they stop at the track, with up to 11 races a day. One of the jockeys will reunite with his connections in the winner’s circle after the race for a photo and more smiles.

Which one? As a group, the riders in this race have more than 1,200 wins and nearly $145 million in earnings, so your $2 is as good as mine.

“It’s a very deep colony,” Gaffalione said. “I mean, you can tell from the races that it’s pretty common as far as wins go.”

Gafalione, 27, got married before the start of the Saratoga season. But his honeymoon at the racetrack was humiliating; He’s having a hard time getting into that winning photo.

He won 65 races this spring and early summer at Kentucky, more than twice as many as his nearest competitor. With just 12 wins and race days until the Saratoga Labor Day finale, it’s unlikely that Gaffalione will face leader Irad Ortiz Jr., who has 35 wins.

Instead, Gaffglione aims to stay in the top 10 of the rankings while taking graduate-level lessons from his more accomplished competitors.

Next in the locker, Rosario, currently second in the Saratoga standings, sets a collegiate tone with eclectic music on his playlist and by observing the tendencies of other riders he watches on video. The Ortiz brothers teach hands-on courses on turf riding and wire winning. From Velázquez, Gafalione received a clinic to hold the position during the race.

“You can’t be disappointed,” Gaffalione said. “Just reminding myself that I’m riding with the best in the world.”

For Pratt, Saratoga is proof. He made the switch to riding full-time at Belmont Park from California, where he had been a dominant rider since coming to America in 2015. His arrival in New York elevated the Colony enough to compete in the 1970s when Hall of Famer Angel Cordero Jr. And Jacinto Vasquez shared the jockey room with Triple Crown winner Steve Cotten.

Pratt won the 2019 Kentucky Derby with Country House when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference after crossing the finish line first. He also won the 2021 Preakness, crossing the finish line first over Rombauer.

In all, he won nearly 200 graded stakes races and finished in the top 11 in the nation in earnings. Now he wants to win the Eclipse Award as a champion jockey.

At age 30, Pratt thought it was the perfect time to move the family before they became too attached to California. And who doesn’t want to live in New York?

He also did the math: New York-based riders have been crowned champions for the past 12 years.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to win the Eclipse,” said Pratt, who is fourth here with 20 wins. “But if you want to put yourself in that position, you have to go where the best are and compete with them every day.”

The young guns are pushing the big ones at Saratoga as well. Castellano, 44, responded to the new blood in the jocks’ room with his best riding in years.

Until spring, the shades on the Hall of Fame seemed closed for good. He missed six weeks of riding after testing positive for Covid-19 in March 2020. He underwent hip surgery, which cost him another three months.

Suddenly, Castellano was benevolent. The powerful trainers, who helped him win 66 races at Saratoga in 2013 and the first of four straight Eclipse honors, would pass on riding the Ortiz brothers or Rosario. (See Pletcher, Todd and Brown, Chad.)

At the Saratoga meet last summer, he scored just 13 wins. It was shocking considering it was the same track where he won the Travers Stakes, known as the “Midsummer Derby” six times.

So Castellano changed agents and dedicated himself to his way back to the top. This meant working more horses in the morning and knocking on barn doors for new and old trains.

Riding on the back of a new generation of riders, Castellano realized that trainers had more options and that the days of the best horses going to three or four riders were gone. He wanted to remind them that he remains an option.

“I had to prove myself at first,” Castellano said. “You can’t take anything for granted.”

With three wins last weekend, Castellano moved into fifth place with 19 wins – one behind Pratt. He rides fewer horses, but wins at an impressive 20 percent clip.

Asked for words of wisdom for the young and talented riders coming up behind him, Castellano was succinct: take more pictures of yourself.

“The more you win,” he said, “the more they want.”

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