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Great Contemporary Thoroughbred Horse Jockeys

Feb 4, 2008
Many sports rival it, but you'd be hard pressed to name any competitive human activity harder than being a jockey. There's the food deprivation - the constant training - the danger, even likelihood, of bone-crushing accidents. No wonder that of all athletes, jockeys face some of the highest insurance premium costs in sports.

And though Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller Seabiscuit spotlighted the hardships faced by the jockeys of prewar times, the life of a jockey remains as tough, dramatic, and - for some - irresistible as ever. Herein, some of America's great contemporary Thoroughbred horse racers.

Julie Krone (1963-) made racing history when, in 1993, she became the first woman winner of a Triple Crown race in US history, taking that year's Belmont Stakes aback Colonial Affair. The Benton Harbor, Michigan-born athlete then wrote another chapter in that history when she executed a Michael Jordan-style dominate-then-retire-then-return-and-dominate-again maneuver, winning a Breeder's Cup race (again, the only woman to do so) after she returned from an abortive retirement in 2002. During her career, Krone won over 17% of her races, netted more than $90 million in returns, and left her name in the record books a number of times.

But numbers don't capture the extent of the achievement of a woman who, after all, faced not only the hurdles blocking any would-be jockey from achievement, but also the hostility that so often comes with being a strong woman in a male-dominated field. For example, she once had to pose for a victory photo while blood dripped from her ear - a fellow jockey (who wanted to keep the field restricted to, literally, "fellows") had lashed her during the race. (She bloodied his nose.) She nearly died after an accident at Saratoga in 1993 (the same year as her storied Belmont victory), then broke both hands in a 1995 spill. But she fought on-all the way to another first: the Hall of Fame inducted her in 2000.

All Thoroughbred horses are closely related (hence the name Thoroughbred), and some great horses, such as Man O'War, have given issue to great progeny (such as Seabiscuit), even siring dynasties. Such a scenario is less common among jockeys, but consider Stewart Elliott (1965-), a champion Canadian jockey whose father was a jockey and whose mother gave riding instructions. Years of hard work and solid track performances (many of them at the Philadelphia Park Racetrack) paid off when, in his first Kentucky Derby in 2004, riding Smarty Jones, he won the first rider in twenty-five years to do so. (This victory yielded him a payday of $60,000 - the largest for any jockey in history.) A Preakness victory two weeks later took Elliott and Smarty Jones to within shouting distance of the Triple Crown, but a too-early backstretch kick led to a heartbreaking Belmont loss to Birdstone. But it's hard to derail a consistent performer for long.

Kent Desormeaux (1970-) learned to love horses while growing up on a farm in Maurice, Louisiana, beginning his racing career as an apprentice jockey in Lafayette. His first victory came at the age of 16, in 1986, when he took Godbey to victory in the Maryland City Handicap.

What has followed is one of the most impressive careers in modern racing history - Desormeaux holds the US record for the greatest number of races won in a single year. In 1989, his annus mirabilis, Desormeaux set that record by winning 598 - five hundred ninety-eight - races. A severe accident in 1992 fractured his skull and left him deaf in one ear, but he still managed to win the Breeders' Cup Turf Race in 1993 and a second Breeders' Cup title in 1995 (riding the filly Desert Stormer).

Finally, there's Marlon St. Julien (1972-), who joined this esteemed list by riding in the 126th Kentucky Derby - the first African American to do so since 1921, by which time white racism and black migration north had reduced the African American presence in the Derby from dominant to negligible. The Lafayette, Louisiana rider got a late start in horse racing - he had been a footballer, perhaps the least likely former career of any jockey ever - but turned his interest to the sport after his eleventh-grade year. He emerged from a tragic five-horse accident which - among other things - broke his sternum to ride races all over American, including the 1997 inaugural season at Lone Star Park and at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana.
About the Author
TRP Services offers Thoroughbred horse racing and horse racing tips online for horse racing handicapping and those who love thoroughbred horses for the horse racing tracks.
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