By Bill Finley
Just 22 and a jockey for less than three years, Tyler Gaffalione will be riding in his first GI Kentucky Derby this year. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe Gaffalione, who will ride Patch (Union Rags) for trainer Todd Pletcher, is ready for the moment. You might even say he has been preparing for it from the day he was born.
. Gaffalione is a third-generation rider. He’s the son of jockey Steve Gaffalione and also the grandson of a rider. His grandfather, who rode under the name of Bobby Gaffglione, was aboard Rexson’s Hope when he finished 10th in the 1984 Kentucky Derby. There was never any doubt that Tyler was going to be a jockey.
“My dad wouldn’t let me get my license when I was 16, and I wasn’t too thrilled about it,” said Gaffalione, who grew up in Florida. “The one rule was that I had to finish high school. But I was always galloping horses in the morning before school started and during the summers I’d go to Ocala to get on horses and I’d work them at the 2-year-old sales. From the time I was 10 or 11, I’ve been getting on horses.”
That Gaffalione is a third-generation jockey is not, of course, any sort of guarantee that he would be successful. But in his case, the years of preparation and the tutoring he has gotten from his father has resulted in a jockey who is polished beyond his years and seems destined for stardom. He was third in the standings at the recently concluded Gulfstream championship meet, won an Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice in 2015 and is regularly picking up mounts for the likes of Pletcher, Chad Brown, Mike Maker and Christophe Clement. He had such a productive winter and spring that he actually had to choose between Derby mounts as he was the wining rider aboard Fast and Accurate (Hansen) in the GIII Spiral S.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said the unfailingly polite Gaffalione. “I can’t even begin to explain it. The first time I ever saw my name on the overnight riding for those [top trainers] it was like a dream come true. It is what we worked for every day and why we do this, to ride for those kinds of people and to ride those kinds of horses.”
He’s already won six stakes this year, including three that are graded.
“He’s been riding for me since last year and comes to Payson Park on dark days to breeze some horses for me and I like him very much,” Clement said. “He has a very good technique, and he rides very well. He will be very successful no matter where he goes. He’s that good.”
Steve Gaffalione last rode regularly in 1998 and Tyler says he is too young to remember ever seeing his father ride. He was a journeyman jockey who competed primarily in Florida and in New England, but never reached the heights his son has already achieved. He is, though, apparently, a very good teacher.
“My dad taught me to have a good work ethic,” Gaffalione said. “He would say, ‘Whatever you do make sure you’re committed all the way. Have a good attitude, don’t get too cocky, try to stay level headed.’ Really, everything I am is because of him. He was always there for me and always supported me 100%. He is so supportive. He calls me after every day of racing. We talk on the phone for hours and go over replays. He is my No. 1 fan and I can never thank him enough for all the love and support he has given me. He is a great father, a great friend, a great mentor.”
Tyler Gaffalione rode his first race on Sept. 5, 2014. A year later, he won 217 races and was named the nation’s top apprentice. He is now firmly established as the top rider in South Florida who remains on the circuit year-round. But the more impressive feat was his showing this year at the championship meet at Gulfstream, where he won 62 races to finish third in the standings behind Luis Saez and Paco Lopez. He and agent Matt Muzikar flirted with the idea of coming to New York this year, but have decided to remain in Florida. Gaffalione said it is likely he will move to New York in 2018.
With so many top 3-year-olds in his barn, Pletcher needed a rider for Patch for the Apr. 1 GII Louisiana Derby. John Velazquez had ridden him before but was needed at Gulfstream to ride Always Dreaming (Bodemeister), who would win the GI Florida Derby. The trainer chose Gaffalione, who finished second that day at the Fair Grounds, earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby field. Gaffalione said he let Muzikar make the choice between Patch and Fast and Accurate.
“I think [Patch] has so much room to improve,” Gaffalione said. “That was only his third start and his first time going around two turns. He really stepped it up and it’s not like he had the perfect trip. We drew the rail and around the second turn had to split horses and then dive back to the fence. I think he learned a lot in that race. His pedigree says he will run all day. He doesn’t have the quickest acceleration, but he keeps coming, keeps coming. I’m really thrilled about this horse. I think he has a very bright future.”
Patch has only one eye [his left eye was removed before he ever raced], but Gaffalione said it doesn’t appear to have any affect on the horse.
Gaffalione is not sure exactly how he is going to feel on Saturday, but is certain that, win or lose, it is going to be a special moment he will never forget.
“I’ve never been to Churchill Downs on Derby Day but have watched the race from home for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Even from home, when they show the jocks walking out of the jocks room and play My Old Kentucky Home I get that feeling in my stomach. I can’t imagine actually being a part of it.”