x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Jockeys' colourful silks get a new shade for Kentucky Derby

For the 139th running, the wee wizards who pilot the horses are drawing a disproportionate amount of attention.

Jockey Gary Stevens at his age is one of the highlights for the upcoming Kentucy Derby. John Sommers II / Reuters
Jockey Gary Stevens at his age is one of the highlights for the upcoming Kentucy Derby. John Sommers II / Reuters

In most years, it is mainly about the horses in the Kentucky Derby, America's oldest uninterrupted sports spectacle - and, with apologies to the Dubai World Cup, the globe's greatest horse race, in my opinion.

Not this time. For the 139th running, the wee wizards who pilot the horses are drawing a disproportionate amount of attention. Well-deserved, too, with the jockeys delivering a set of storylines during the run-up to tomorrow's Derby that is a promoter's dream.

To tweak an old saying: There is something old, something potentially new, something black and something black-and-blue.

The old, Gary Stevens. He took his aching knees into retirement eight years ago, apparently closing out a Hall of Fame career with no box left unchecked on his riding bucket list.

Boredom and bad habits got the better of Stevens, so his New Year's resolution was a return to racing at the ridiculous age of 50. While we already might have ditched our pledge for 2013, Stevens has stuck with his, shedding a remarkable 15 per cent of his weight and regaining the magic touch.

After riding Dullahan to 11th in the Dubai World Cup in Match, he climbs aboard Oxbow for Wayne Lukas, 77, the trainer's version of someone working successfully years beyond the norm. They first collaborated for a Derby victory with the filly Winning Colors 25 years ago, barely months after the birth of ...

The potentially new, Rosie Napravnik.

This is not her first rodeo, having finished ninth two years ago, but Napravnik is the first female to fend off lingering gender prejudice and join the upper tier of jockeys.

In her teens, she listed herself as AR Napravnik, using initials vague enough to disguise her sex so chauvinistic owners and trainers might pass judgment solely on results. Some told her, face to face, they would never hire "a girl".

Their loss. Last year, she ranked seventh among American jockeys in wins and eighth in earnings. Pretty decent for a minority in the racing universe, though she is not the only one with a reservation Saturday in the starting gate ...

The black, Kevin Krigger. He is the second African-American jockey with a Derby assignment in nearly a century, landing on Goldencents.

Little did Krigger, 29, know when arriving from the Caribbean island of St Croix that black riders were once routine, even a majority, at the Derby.

At the inaugural race, African-Americans secured all but two of the 15 mounts, and they were first to the wire in 15 of the initial 28 races.

Then racism seeped into the sport, driving black participants offstage and into duties confined largely to the stables.

Krigger has won over all but the most resistant owners and trainers with his talent and an ebullient personality that can sweep the blues away. Speaking of which ...

The black-and-blue, John Velazquez's body, when a race spill less than a month ago left him with a broken rib and chipped wrist bone.

Jockeys are ultra-competitive by nature - and uncompensated when idle.

So Johnny V, who has won almost US$20 million (Dh73.4m), which ranks third-most at US racecourses, promptly declared that he would not abandon Verrazano, a possible favourite.

Verrazano is one of five Derby entrants saddled by Todd Pletcher, matching a record for busiest trainers. Not all of the pre-race hubbub involving humans revolves around the little lady and three gentlemen in the colourful silks.

But those jockeys hog the spotlight, and that does not even account for a second chap from St Croix, atop Frac Daddy.

His name is LeBron. No kidding. And, no relation to the basketball superstar.

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