Jockeys are little men and women, but they have a big impact on the outcome of horse races and your pari-mutuel horse racing bets. They can’t make a bad horse good, but they can make the difference between a win and a loss for a horse that is talented. In the Preakness Stakes it is particularly significant to pay attention to the jockeys because they have a big impact in the unique race. Here are five things to consider when you are handicapping and considering jockeys in the Preakness:
Don’t worry about knowledge of track – When I am handicapping the Kentucky Derby I am very concerned about a jockey’s history of success at the track and in the race. Churchill Downs is a quirky track at the best of times, and the Derby is a brutal challenge, so I want to make sure that the jockey has the knowledge to capitalize on the situation and avoid trouble the best he can.That’s not nearly as much of a factor at the Preakness. For starters, in this leg of the Triple Crown, trouble is not nearly as much of a concern because the smaller field typically causes fewer problems. More significantly, though, experience isn’t much of a concern because so few top level jockeys ride in Maryland with any consistency. As a result, few jockeys have a particular advantage over the rest of the field in terms of track familiarity, so it’s not worth particularly worrying about. Even if top level jockeys have ridden in Maryland in the past chances are good that they have moved on to better tracks and more prestigious circuits now, so their knowledge isn’t necessarily current.
Knowledge of the trainer is more significant than knowledge of the horse – As a handicapper, I like to see a jockey riding for a trainer that he has ridden for a bunch in the past – and had some success. I’m far less concerned that the jockey has had a lot of success on the particular horse he is riding, though. Martin Garcia was a perfect example when he won the race aboard Lookin’ at Lucky in 2010. He took over the mount from Garrett Gomez after the horse had had a terrible outing in the Derby. Garcia didn’t know the horse, but the young rider had been very successful during the year riding for trainer Bob Baffert and rider and jockey had a lot of comfort with each other. Elite jockeys are very good at adapting to new horses, so a change in riders is not a big deal, but trainers can pick the jockeys that suit the horse best, so a history with the jockey is a comforting thing to see.
For speed horses the ability of a jockey to rate is crucial – Speed horses just do not do well in the Preakness. Between 1960 and 2010 just five horses won the race wire-to-wire – far less than you would expect over that time. More significantly, from 1995 to 2010 there was just one horse – Rachel Alexandra – who was leading after half a mile and still ahead at the wire. Speed horses who have to have the lead in this race just seem to find ways to get in trouble. As a result, it is definitely preferable for a jockey who has a horse with some speed to be able to convince the horse to save himself and run just off the pace for as long as he can before trying to grab the lead. It’s hard for some horses to do that, so a jockey who excels at convincing horses to do it are preferable to those who don’t rate nearly as well.
Aggressiveness isn’t particularly attractive – At the Derby aggressive riding is rewarded many times. The field is so huge that horses often have to make their own opportunities and take any chance they can get to make a move. In the Preakness, though, aggressive riding isn’t needed nearly as much because the field is smaller and space is much easier to find. More casual, conservative rides are much more favorable in this leg of the Triple Crown, and aggressive jockeys can actually be a negative thing in this race.
Look for jockey jumps – There is always a lot of jockey movement before a big race. Sometimes that movement can be interesting and informative. For example, if a jockey rode a horse in the Derby and that horse is running in the Preakness but the jockey chooses to ride a different horse instead then that’s a pretty good indicator that the jockey wasn’t entirely confident in the horse he had previously ridden. The most glaring example of this was Calvin Borel in 2009 – after winning the Derby aboard Mine That Bird he chose to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. Giving up a chance at a potential Triple Crown is unheard of, so Borel made it clear who he believed was the better horse – and he was right as it turned out.