The jockeys are always a crucial part of handicapping horse races, and one that casual bettors often overlook. On the biggest racing days like the Breeders’ Cup, though, the importance of the jockeys is even greater. When the fields are so deep and so talented a good ride from a jockey can make all the difference, and a poor ride can cost a great horse the race. When you are handicapping these big races, then, you need to pay close attention to the little guys on the backs of the horses. Here are six questions for horse bettors to ask to help determine whether they are an advantage for a horse or not:
Do they know the horse? – Ideally, by the time a horse has gotten all the way to the Breeders’ Cup they have built a relationship with a jockey. Surprisingly often, though, you’ll see a jockey ride a horse for the first time at the Breeders’ Cup. If a rider change has been made heading into the race it is important to get a sense of why that move has been made. Is the regular rider riding another horse in the race? If a jockey has a choice between two horses he is rarely going to pick the worse horse, so a change like that can be a concern. Sometimes a change will be made because a better jockey is available. If the jockey change is clearly an upgrade then it could be seen as a positive move. If a jockey is riding a horse for the first time then it is worth doing some research to see if the jockey has ridden the horse in training in the morning at some point. A morning ride is a very good chance for a rider to get comfortable with the horse and understand him a little better. Making the effort to ride the horse also shows that the jockey is truly committed to the race. I’m always less optimistic about a rider change if the race is the first time the jockey has sat on the horse.
Does the horse suit their style? – Every jockey has biases and style preferences. If they are riding a horse that suits that style then they are more likely to do well than they will if they have to ride outside of their comfort zone, or if they try to force the horse to do something it isn’t comfortable with. For example, Calvin Borel’s preference for moving horses aggressively up the rail down the stretch is well known. He’s far less effective on a horse that likes to lead, or on one that isn’t aggressive and doesn’t like moving through traffic.
Do they know the track? – Bettors need to be aware that each track has different quirks and characteristics. Some jockeys are better suited to some tracks than others. If a track has characteristics that make it unique or challenging then jockeys who know the track are going to have an advantage over jockeys that don’t. Not to pick on Calvin Borel, but he is a good example of this as well. At Churchill Downs, his home track, he is a very effective rider as his multiple Derby wins proves. Away from Kentucky, though, he is far less effective, and his struggles at the Belmont have shown that.
How much big day experience do they have? – Riding in the Breeders’ Cup can be very intimidating if you aren’t familiar with doing so. The crowds are huge, the fields are big, and the pressure is intense. Not only that, but you are dressing beside the biggest names in the sport in the jockeys’ room, then racing against them on the track. It is a very rare jockey who can ride at their best the first time they experience riding on the biggest stage.
What track record do they have with the trainer? – Trust between a trainer and a jockey is crucial. It means that race strategy is understood, and that the trainer knows what the jockey is capable of and knows what he has to do to give him the best chance of success. It’s far easier to trust a horse if the trainer and jockey regularly work together and enjoy a lot of success than it is if the trainer and jockey have no real established relationship.
What’s their recent record? – Bettors who watch a lot of horse races know that jockeys are streaky. Confidence is a huge part of what they do. If a jockey is doing well and feeling good then they’ll make the split second decision that they need to to win. If they are struggling, though, then they’ll be tentative, and even the smallest hesitation can cost the horse a race. If a jockey comes into the Breeders’ Cup hot then he is far easier to trust than if he hasn’t been able to win anything coming into the championships.