Going to the races in Maryland is a bit like living in a crime-plagued neighborhood: You get used to being a victim.
Just as urban dwellers may say wearily and matter-of-factly that somebody has stolen their car or their stereo again, horseplayers here have become almost blase about the things that jockeys do to them.
However, even bettors who thought they had seen every type of ineptitude and had suffered every indignity were agog after Mark Johnston's now-famous ride at Laurel Tuesday.
Johnston had a comfortable lead in midstretch aboard the favorite, One Third, and he was barely moving a muscle. He looked behind him, saw he had a comfortable advantage over his closest pursuer, the filly McKilts, and still didn't move a muscle. In fact, the jockey looked as if rigor mortis had set in as McKilts surged at the leader and caught One Third in the final stride. In the parlance of the track, Johnston had gone to sleep on his horse.
The contrite apprentice was fined $1,000 for his lapse. His error cost the owners of One Third $7,220 in purse money and cost King Leatherbury the $1,140 fee that would have gone to the winning trainer. None of them suffered horribly. But Johnston's ride took more than $100,000 from people who had wagered on the best horse in the ninth race at Laurel. This is a significant amount of money, and this is the reason bettors are justifiably upset about the quality of riding in Maryland.
Johnston's gaffe was as bad as they come, but in some ways it typified the style of riding that prevails in Maryland -- a style characterized by passivity and caution that drives bettors here crazy.
This lack of aggressiveness comes in part from the attitude of many veteran riders who are disinclined to take physical risks and who will habitually restrain their horses as they leave the gate and then take them wide on the turn. One trainer complained: "A lot of these jockeys are just too comfortable. They've got a half million in the bank, they can knock out $100,000 a year and they're not going to go through a hole on the rail."
Many jockeys in Maryland truly believe this is the optimal riding style. They ignore the axiom of handicapping that speed wins most races, and the evidence that the nation's best jockeys -- most of them based in speed-oriented California -- ride aggressively as soon as the gate opens.
Instead, Maryland jockeys prefer to nurse their mounts along in the early stages and to save their horses' energy for the stretch, as if they were riding two-mile races in Newmarket, England, rather than six-furlong sprints at Laurel.
The sit-still style may have become entrenched in Maryland because one of its foremost practitioners, Chris McCarron, launched his career here. Donnie Miller Jr. was Maryland's kingpin rider for many years, and he espoused that style too.
Many trainers endorsed this way of riding because they don't like to see their horses' speed used prematurely either. Even Leatherbury said after Johnston's ride aboard One Third: "I didn't get really upset because his intentions were good" -- he was trying to conserve the filly's energy as much as possible.
Newcomers to the Maryland jockey colony are typically influenced by the type of riding they see, and they emulate it. So while apprentices are supposed to be fiery and aggressive and speed-oriented, Johnston already is a member of the take-'em-back-and-make-a-late-move school.
The quality of the jockey colony stands in sharp contrast to the dramatic improvement in all other facets of Maryland racing. Before the Preakness, California-based writer William Murray paid his first visit to Pimlico, and I proudly showed off the Sports Palace and other snazzy parts of the physical plant. When Murray opened the Daily Racing Form, he was impressed by the quality and competitiveness of the fields. I should have escorted him out before he had a chance to watch the races themselves.
In one eight-horse route race, Murray observed there was no true front runner, but all eight horses had a little bit of speed. The race could be controlled by whoever wanted to control it.
Murray concluded it would be I'm Jama, ridden by Joe Rocco, but watched with amazement as all eight jockeys restrained their horses out of the gate and permitted the first quarter mile to be run in a dawdling 24 seconds. Murray left the track muttering imprecations about Rocco. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that Rocco is one of the best jockeys in the state.
The nature of the jockey colony here seems to contradict the laws of economics. "With the purses we have, we should be drawing better riders," said Leatherbury. "Our purses are so good now that you'd think we'd get some name riders from other areas of the country."
It is indeed surprising that jockeys who rank at the lower end of the top 10 in New York -- men such as Richard Migliore and Eddie Maple, for example -- don't come here, where many trainers would be eager to use their services.
One newcomer who did elevate the quality of the local riding colony was Edgar Prado, who came here from Florida in 1989 and has remained a fiery competitor without being Miller-ized.
"He's the best journeyman here. He's driven to win," said trainer John Hartsell. And despite what my friend Murray thinks, Rocco's arrival here from New Jersey was a plus too.
But the fact remains that the jockey colony here still is dominated by the timid or untalented. Only in such a context could Mark Johnston rank as Laurel's top race-winning rider.