Since I have been at Santa Anita, I have not once cursed a jockey.
This sort of forbearance would be unfamiliar to racing fans in most other parts of the country, where the ineptitude of the riders is an integral part of the game. First you have to dope out the best horse in the race, then you have to pray that his rider doesn't mess it up.
But here I have rarely seen a superior horse lose because his jockey made a tactical error. Here I have rarely seen a horse lose because his jockey applied a hammerlock. Here the jockey colony is like no other in America.
Because of the tremendous purses, even the 10th-best rider in California can earn more money than a kingpin in other racing areas. The economic opportunities, as well as the pleasant physical environment here, have lured to Santa Anita the best jockey colony assembled at any track since Eddie Arcaro, Bobby Ussery and other greats were competing in New York in the 1950s. Some would argue that this is the best group of riders ever assembled at any track in history.
Their credentials are awesome: Bill Shoemaker has won more money and more races than any jockey in history. Laffit Pincay Jr. is the second-leading money winner of all time. Chris McCarron rode more winners in a single season than any other jockey ever has. Sandy Hawley and Darrel McHargue are both Eclipse Award winners.
Of course, horseplayers who watch races critically know that there are plenty of jockeys whose lofty reputations are spurious; the New York jockeys' rooms are full of them. So I was skeptical when I came to watch the big-name California jockeys.
I am not skeptical any more. The style and quality of riding here is perceptibly different from that at any other track.
The most striking aspect of the sport at Santa Anita is that every jockey seems to possess an understanding of the tactics that are needed to win races. Elsewhere, this is not true; when a bias exists at Pimlico and nine races a day are being won by the horse who gets the lead on the rail, the last people to know it are the inhabitants of the jockeys' room. But here everybody knows that horses with early speed win races.
If a handicapper figures that a particular horse is going to be in front, he can feel confident that the jockey will get him there. The riders are extraordinarily proficient at breaking from the gate, and they try to get the lead whenever they can. "The basic ingredient in riding here is that you've got to send your horse out of the gate," said McCarron. "You've got to ride almost all the way." Jockeys like Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen, who tried to ride with the patient style that they employed in the East, have been spectacular flops in California.
All the jockeys know, too, that losing ground on Santa Anita's sharp turns can cost them a race, and so they all appreciate the importance of getting and maintaining a favorable tactical position. The horses often race in tight little packs around the turns. "Here they ride much closer than anywhere else," said Kenny Black, who like McCarron is a product of the Maryland circuit. "They're all so smart and they can ride to intimidate you without bothering you. They can also do that because they have so much faith in the ability of the other riders."
Because riding tactics are so important here, and because the riders have such visible identities, racing fans here are extremely jockey-conscious. When the horses are driving through the stretch, bettors implore the jockeys rather than the horses: "Come on, Laffit!" "Come on, Shoe!" The fans scrutinize riders, learn their styles and strengths and weaknesses.
In one case, however, there are no perceptible weaknesses. Nobody ever knocks Pincay. He is excellent at coming out of the gate, excellent at riding in heavy traffic and renowned as the strongest finisher in the sport. As great as he is, I have been even more impressed by McCarron. Even in 12-horse scrambles when every jockey is fighting to get into good position, McCarron always seems to be the one who winds up in the perfect spot. He is a master tactician.
If the performances of Pincay and McCarron have lived up to their reputations, I expected to find Shoemaker grossly overrated--a 50-year-old man living off his past glories. In fact, he still shows flashes of his old brilliance. "There's nothing so inspiring as watching Little Bill when the money's down and it's a 'go,' " says one of the cynical locals. "Of course, that's not very often."
Horseplayers here, like horseplayers everywhere, can find grounds for cynicism or criticism of every jockey (Pincay excepted). They say McCarron rides too tentatively if he's not convinced that his horse figures to win. McHargue has forgotten that speed wins races. Hawley's fondness for swooping around the field on the turn has made a contribution to local handicapping terminology. "Hawley wide" means that a horse was taking a virtual detour through the parking lot.
The locals, of course, are more than a little spoiled. They don't know what it is like to play the horses with the assumption that almost any jockey can be expected to blow a race at almost any time. Having watched Pincay, McCarron and Shoemaker over the years, they think it is reasonable to expect perfection from a jockey.