By Bill Finley
Flavien Prat is a world-class jockey, a future Hall of Famer who dominated the Southern California circuit before heading east. Yet, he entered the week tied for fourth-place in the Saratoga jockey standings, 15 wins behind the leader, Irad Ortiz, Jr. Tyler Gaffalione is the top jockey in Kentucky and is coming off a meet at Churchill Downs where he was leading rider and had 29 more wins than the runner-up. He began the week in ninth-place in the Saratoga standings.
That's no reflection on Prat or Gaffalione. What it speaks to is the depth of the current group that battles it out everyday at Saratoga. By any metric, there's not another colony in the U.S. that comes close when it comes to talent.
“It's the strongest colony in the world,” said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who is working the meet as an analyst on America's Day at the Races, which airs on the Fox sports networks. “You can go 15 deep, maybe deeper, and if I were a trainer I wouldn't worry about which guy I was getting. It is very, very competitive here.”
Has there ever been a better jockey colony in one place at one time? While that may be a question to which there is no definitive answer, it's worth exploring.
The Saratoga colony includes just two current Hall of Famers, John Velazquez and Javier Castellano. But one of its strengths is that so many of the top riders are relatively young and have many good years ahead of them. Irad Ortiz is 29, his brother Jose is 28. They should still be dominant 20 years from now. Luis Saez and Prat are both 30. Gaffalione is 27. The Ortiz brothers, Saez, Prat and Joel Rosario are all likely future Hall of Famers. None are eligible yet. Gaffalione is also in the mix when it comes to the Hall of Fame. In 15 years or so from now, there could be seven or eight Hall of Famers who rode regularly at Saratoga in 2022.
Six Saratoga regulars have won Eclipse Awards as the nation's top jockey. The list consists of both of the Ortiz brothers, Castellano, Velazquez, Rosario and Julien Leparoux. Gaffalione won an Eclipse Award in 2015 as the nation's outstanding apprentice.
Get past the top six or seven and the list is still incredibly deep. There is Manny Franco, Dylan Davis, Ricardo Santana, Jr., Kendrick Carmouche, Jose Lezcano, Junior Alvarado.
“I love watching these guys compete,” Stevens said. “It is a show. On TV, I get to see a great show every day.”
In the modern era, it's generally accepted that the Southern California colony in the late eighties and early nineties was among the best ever. In 1989, the last full year that the legendary Bill Shoemaker rode, there were seven Hall of Famers in the colony. They are: Shoemaker, Alex Solis, Stevens, Eddie Delahoussaye, Sandy Hawley, Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay Jr. If not for his off-the-track problems, Pat Valenzuela would have likely made it into the Hall of Fame. Five riders from that era in California won Eclipse Awards.
Jockey agent Ron Anderson knows that colony well. Now working in New York as the agent for Velazquez and Rosario, he represented Fernando Toro and then Stevens when the Southern California jockey colony was at its best.
“This group at Saratoga is comparable to them, but it's not better than the group we had out there then,” Anderson said. “How many Eclipse Award-winning legends were in that group? This is the best since then, but I can't say that this is a better group. With Laffit, Shoemaker, Delahoussaye, McCarron, Stevens and Valenzuela, that was an incredibly deep group.”
“It's as strong as that group,” Stevens said when asked to compare the California contingent to the current Saratoga roster. “But I don't want to go too far out on a limb because the colony in California back then was very strong.”
When it comes to the best jockey colonies ever assembled, the crew that rode in New York in the seventies must also be under consideration. Take 1972, a year in which Pincay rode the Saratoga meet. There were eight Hall of Famers in that group, Pincay, Eddie Maple, Angel Cordero, Jr., John Rotz, Ron Turcotte, Braulio Baeza, Jacinto Vasquez and Jorge Velasquez.
“The people I rode with in New York in the seventies and eighties, they are all in the Hall of Fame,” said Cordero, who is working the current meet as a jockey agent. “The only two from Saratoga right now are Johnnie (Velazquez) and Javier (Castellano). They have to get to the Hall of Fame before you can compare them to a group where there were seven or eight Hall of Famers. I'm not knocking these riders. They are very good. They may get to the Hall of Fame, but they are not there yet.”
So which colony was better, New York in the seventies, California in the eighties or Saratoga in 2022? Opinions differ and there are arguments to be made for each. Perhaps there are others who deserve to be part of the equation. But this much is certain: the 2022 Saratoga riding colony is special.