For the past several weeks, I have spent much of my time watching films, and they have left me depressed.
Now I know how Tom Shales, The Washington Post's TV critic, feels after staring at hour after hour of mindless situation comedies. But I have been watching something even more offensive to human intelligence.
I have been watching Maryland's jockeys at work.
I made a project of studying the films of all the races at Laurel during a five-week period, so that I could grade the performances of all the riders at the track and rank them from the best to the worst. Maryland racing does have one genuine star -- young Kent Desormeaux, who was the country's champion apprentice rider of 1987 -- and a handful of other jockeys who are generally reliable and capable. But overall, this collection of washed-up veterans, untalented apprentices and assorted miscreants must be one of the most pathetic groups of riders ever assembled at a major track.
This, of course, is not a wholly original observation. Many fans, trainers and officials at Laurel spend a great deal of time deploring the quality of the little men (and women) who are such a crucial component of the sport.
The problem in Maryland is that the jockey colony is so rarely infused with any new blood. (Desormeaux's arrival from Louisiana is the one notable recent exception). "Maryland has always had a reputation as being a tough place for outsiders to break in," said leading trainer King Leatherbury. The game used to be dominated by a handful of large stables, and if a rider wasn't connected with one of them, he couldn't succeed. This is no longer the case -- "It would be a good time now for an outside rider to break in," said Leatherbury -- but the reputation may linger. Besides, many Maryland trainers seem content to use the same familiar riders, as if they have become inured to mediocrity, thus enabling the jockeys to grow even more complacent.
What infuriates most people about the Maryland riders is not their lack of talent, but their apparent lack of motivation and aggressiveness. Many won't take physical risks; many won't even exert themselves mentally to think about tactics before a race.
There is no more tangible measure of a jockey's courage and determination than his willingness to save ground on the turns -- or at least to avoid going too wide. Many of the veterans here love to go as wide as they can, taking their mounts to the distant terrain that a press-box colleague has dubbed the Pino Parkway. (This is named after jockey Mario Pino, who says, "On a track with wide turns like Laurel, you usually want to go outside; horses carry their momentum better on the outside.") The fact remains that the wider horses go, the farther they have to travel, and the main reason that some jockeys habitually take the Parkway is to insure their own safety.
But even the jockeys willing to ride in traffic are often passive and unaggressive. Desormeaux wins so many races by shooting along the rail to take the lead, Marylanders probably assume that this is a normal occurrence. In California, though, it almost never happens; when one rider lets another get through along the rail, it is considered a capital offense. In Maryland it's not even a misdemeanor.
While one may sympathize with the difficulties and dangers of controlling a half-ton animal moving at 35 miles per hour, it is harder to understand the mental laziness of so many Maryland riders. Even casual fans can see when a race is devoid of early speed and the rider who guns for the lead will have a big edge; fans can spot biases that create big advantages or disadvantages for horses in certain parts of the track; but jockeys often seem oblivious to these elementary parts of the game.
On Dec. 26, the first eight races at Laurel were won by horses who stayed on the rail; the track bias was unmistakable. The ninth race was the Congressional Handicap and the best horse in the field, Entertain, was breaking from the inside post position. That should make him a cinch, right? It should have -- except that jockey Vincent Bracciale Jr. immediately steered Entertain far off the rail, stayed off it for most of the race, and lost to a vastly inferior rival. A tactical error like this would have been bad enough if it had been committed by an apprentice in a rock-bottom race, but this was one of Maryland's most experienced jockeys riding in a stakes with a $53,285 purse and he was oblivious to the condition of the track.
Asked about the race the other day, Bracciale said he couldn't remember the details; he thought he had stayed on the inside most of the way. Well, I remember it -- all too painfully. It was this particular display of ineptitude that prompted me to undertake my study of Maryland jockeys and learn which ones could be counted on to deliver a competent performance most of the time.
I studied and graded the films of all the races at Laurel from Dec. 26 to Jan. 30, giving a jockey a minus for a poor performance and a plus for a good one. I tried not to be swayed by the simple fact that a rider won or lost a race. I wanted to identify jockeys who were riding well even though they might not be getting good mounts. And I wanted to spot jockeys who were coasting on their reputations, winning because they got superior mounts and not because of their skills. I judged riders on their willingness to save ground; to judge pace; to detect track biases; to employ smart tactics; to break from the gate well; to stay out of trouble.
My method of calculating the ratings was a bit arcane -- it will be explained when my ranking of Maryland's riders, from No. 1 to No. 35, is published on Friday -- but there was nothing complicated about the conclusions. Only five riders at Laurel earned respectable marks.
These five will be profiled in the next two days, with the bottom of the list appearing on Friday. This is called accentuating the positive -- which, in this case, wasn't easy to do.
Next: Maryland's best rider