Jockey Kent Desormeaux is so good and so dominant that he drives Maryland horseplayers crazy. Because of his justifiable popularity, the odds on his mounts are always depressed. But when a bettor tries to beat Desormeaux, he will often wind up losing because an inferior jockey blows the race with a superior horse.
I undertook an analysis of the jockey colony at Laurel to identify the other capable, dependable riders at the track. After studying films of races for five weeks, I wound up with a short list. There are only five jockeys on whom I feel I could bet with confidence. Desormeaux, obviously, is No. 1. Here are the others:
DEAN SARVIS. Young jockeys are frequently frustrated by the Catch-22 of their profession: If they don't win many races and build a reputation, they won't get good mounts to ride. But if they don't get good mounts, they won't be able to win races.
Sarvis rode 36 times during January and won twice -- one of them with a 160-to-1 shot. If you canvassed the trainers, owners and fans in Maryland and asked who their favorite jockeys are, Sarvis' name would not appear on anybody's list but his mother's. When he appeared as No. 2 in my tabulation, I assumed there must have been a mistake and reviewed my notes on all of his rides.
The 19-year-old Baltimorean made almost no mistakes. His mounts would break cleanly; they wouldn't get into traffic problems; they wouldn't lose much ground on the turns. The only times that Sarvis would go three-wide or four-wide on the turns were on days when the rail at Laurel was disadvantageous. He seemed to have good instincts for detecting biases in the track. For all of his efforts, Sarvis may have earned about as much money during the month of January as an average mutuel clerk at Laurel. I hope at least that he bet on that 160-to-1 shot.
CLARENCE LADNER. The best thing that ever happened to Jo Jo Ladner was his association with owner Glenn Lane and trainer Dennis Heard -- and not just because they have one of the better stables in Maryland. Lane is obsessed with the importance of saving ground on the turns. He insists his riders try to get to the rail, and he won't second-guess when they occasionally get blocked trying to save ground. Riding for Lane helped make New Jersey-based Julie Krone the most successful female rider in America; it has made Ladner one of the top jockeys in Maryland.
The 22-year-old wins many races because of his willingness to take chances, to negotiate his way through heavy traffic and squeeze through narrow openings on the rail, while his more cautious rivals are losing ground around the turns.
The drawback of Ladner's (and Lane's) single-mindedness about saving ground is that he can wind up on the rail when it is the worst part of the track -- as it often has been at Laurel lately. This may be the reason that Ladner was a bit less successful during the past month than he was in November and December, when the track tended to be even. Neverthless, Ladner has demonstrated that hugging the rail can be a jockey's shortcut to success.
MICHAEL HUNTER. Nobody in Maryland is much better than Michael Hunter at riding horses who rally from far behind. He has the regular assignment on several slow, unversatile stretch-runners from the barn of trainer Tommy Caviness -- Front Fender, Carrac, Kalli, Muscovy Duck -- and he has performed well with all of them. Hunter is a good finisher but, more important, a good rider in traffic. He doesn't try to loop the field with these come-from-behind runners as so many of his rivals would; he manages to rally through the pack without losing any momentum.
Hunter might have been ranked even higher if he had not suffered a spill in early January -- one which was the result of another rider's carelessness. When he came back a little more than a week later, he delivered some subpar efforts -- including his embarrassing performance in the Goss L. Stryker Stakes, when he put the lone speed horse in the field under wraps while the leaders went the first quarter mile in 26 2/5 seconds. But Hunter showed he was back in form when he brought Halo Highlight from far behind, squeezed through along the rail and won a maiden race with a vintage effort.
ALLEN STACY. Although he has been riding only since 1985, Allen Stacy has already had enough dramatic peaks and valleys in his career to last a lifetime. He was the country's leading apprentice rider in 1986, the winner of the Eclipse Award. But after he lost the weight allowance that apprentices receive, many stables stopped using him. He hit such a terrible slump that Maryland horseplayers considered him to be an almost automatic throw-out.
Stacy made the most of adversity. "It made me look at what I was doing on a racehorse," he said. "I had to make the best of the few horses I was riding." Now Stacy is back in form, fighting for second place in the Maryland jockey standings, and he is riding with perceptible confidence.
He likes to position his mounts just behind the early leaders; if a wall of horses is in front of him, he'll wait patiently until a hole opens. He gave an excellent performance on Kerygma in the recent Francis Scott Key Stakes, sitting behind heavy traffic and then zipping through along the rail when he saw some daylight. He was even cooler riding The Stark Truth in an allowance race in mid-January. The filly was blocked until midstretch, but Stacy didn't panic and held his position; when he finally found room he burst through to win.
Because of his willingness to ride in the midst of traffic, Stacy is more likely to get into trouble than Maryland's other top jockeys; by the same token, he almost always saves ground. He has even fewer very wide trips than the obsessively ground-saving Ladner does.
That he has bounced back from a period of hard times also speaks well of Stacy's character. He is a likely candidate to become Maryland's No. 1 jockey when Desormeaux moves on to greener pastures.
Friday: The rest of the bunch