Jockey Switch Comes Through
ANIMAL'S JOCKEY SWITCH COMES THROUGH
For the first time in memory, the winner of the Kentucky Derby has spread a sour taste across the land.
And that's too bad because the people associated with Animal Kingdom, the 20-1 surprise winner, don't really deserve it.
The principal owner, Barry Irwin, 68, has paid his dues over a long life in the game, first as a turf writer, then an owner, and finally a successful, if brash (some say obnoxious), thoroughbred breeder and syndicator, operating under the banner of Team Valor International.
The English-born trainer, Graham Motion, by reputation, is one of the true gentlemen of the profession. All you need know about Motion is that in 18 years of training he has never once been flagged with a medication violation. In this day and age, that is amazing.
Then there is the jockey, John Velazquez. Who, pray tell, would utter a single word of criticism against Johnny V., whose demeanor and conduct throughout his long career are without blemish?
Yet when they all gathered for the media conference after winning the greatest race in America they looked as if they were at a funeral. And they knew why -- the camp had dumped a popular stricken jockey, Robby Albarado, the day before the Derby and replaced him with Velazquez, after Velazquez, in turn, had lost his prize mount Uncle Mo through injury.
They knew the score. What should have been the usual ecstatic after-race celebrations turned into squirm time.
Jockey switches are a dime a dozen in racing. It's part of the fabric. It is accepted by everyone. Except -- in the Kentucky Derby.
This race is like no other. It's big money, big celebrity, big history, the summit. There is no substitute.
Albarado broke Animal Kingdom's maiden at Keeneland last October and was hired to ride him in the Derby. Last Wednesday, the jockey was pitched to the ground by his mount, then had his face stomped on, breaking his nose among other wounds.
Albarado took off his mounts Thursday and Friday, but assured everyone he was ready to ride Saturday. Irwin and Motion were not persuaded. Friday, they decided to make a switch.
Irwin defended the decision. He said: "I have 20 partners in this horse and I had to do what is best for the partnership."
Motion, at the barn yesterday, said: "I called Robby at 10 o'clock Friday and it was one of the hardest things I had to do this week, to tell him we were going to make a change because we were concerned about his well-being."
Still, the irony was inescapable.
A few days before the Derby, Irwin issued one of his famous communiques about Albarado.
"He was chosen for Animal Kingdom because of his familiarity with the colt and his years of success in riding at Churchill Downs," said Irwin. "Motion and Team Valor relied upon his opinion to advise them. We feel fortunate in having Robby ride for us. Animal Kingdom is a big strong horse and Robby has the strength to handle him."
Famous last words. In the crunch, Irwin pulled the trigger and suddenly Robby was dispensable.
Then Albarado really stuck it to them by going out Saturday afternoon and winning the Humana Distaff, a $300,000 Grade 1 stake with a brilliant ride on the 16-1 longshot Sassy Image.
Said Motion on yesterday: "What an amazing guy he is to accomplish that. What an athlete he is. To come out and do what he did after all he had been through 48 hours earlier was extraordinary. We did not expect him to do that."
Everybody feels great sympathy for Albarado and his ill fortune. But in the end, Big Bad Barry Irwin, an aggressive, opinionated go-getter, made a business decision.
The results speak for themselves. No defense needed.
by Ray Kerrison
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