WASHINGTON — The Goss L. Stryker Stakes at Laurel last Sunday illustrated one of the great hazards of playing the horses in Maryland. Those horses have little men on their backs, and the little men sometimes are required to think.
The five-horse race looked as cut and dried as a race can be. Fappavalley clearly was the best horse in the field, and he was the overwhelming favorite. Gospel Note was the only other stakes-quality entrant, and he was the only speed horse in the lineup. None of the others had won anything but a slow maiden race.
When the gate opened, every jockey put his mount under stout restraint, and two long shots led the field after running the first quarter mile in an astonishingly slow 26 1-5 seconds. I can't remember seeing a slower opening fraction in any race -- and these were stakes horses. Gospel Note could have been 10 lengths in front if jockey Michael Hunter had let him; Fappavalley wouldn't have had trouble taking the lead, either, if James Edwards had so desired. Instead, they permitted a 25-to-1 shot, Devilish Zeus, to lead all the way.
Hunter said after the race that because Gospel Note had stumbled slightly at the start, he didn't want to rush him. Edwards said that by staying off the pace he was just following orders (of the horse's trainer).
The fact remains that both jockeys lost a race they might have won if they were more alert. And Devilish Zeus' victory was an utter fluke. If the Stryker Stakes had been run 100 times with jockeys displaying minimal competence, the same outcome wouldn't have been repeated once.
This episode epitomized the reason that Maryland horseplayers spend a lot of time discussing -- and cursing -- Maryland jockeys. Of course, gamblers anywhere may be jockey-baiters, and gamblers anywhere love to blame riders for their defeats. But since I have been playing the horses here on a serious day-to-day basis, I have concluded that the people at Laurel have good reason to be so keenly attuned to jockeys. I have handicapped horses in every corner of the country, and I have never seen a place where so many races are determined by the relative astuteness or incompetence of the jockeys. Sometimes they make the horses seem irrelevant.
So it is crucial to know who the capable jockeys in Maryland are. But how? It is difficult to judge riders on the basis of their statistics. A good but unknown jockey may not get the mounts that enable him to win many races. Conversely, a lofty reputation can ensure a jockey's success. Bill Shoemaker has been over the hill for years, but he will remain one of the leaders of his profession as long as he rides for trainer Charlie Whittingham's powerful stable in California.
The only way to evaluate jockeys is to watch them ride on a day-to-day basis. And so I have undertaken a research project aimed at the Maryland jockey colony.
After each day's races are finished (and the passions of the moment have subsided), I review them and grade the riders' performances, like a football coach grading the game films. I put a plus by the name of any rider who gives an above-average performance, a minus by the name of a rider who delivers an egregious effort.
Of course, jockeys get demerits when their horses get in trouble (unless they were clearly innocent victims). This is the toughest part of their profession: none of us in the grandstand could envy the task of controlling a half-ton animal in the midst of heavy traffic.
But many aspects of good riding demand intelligence and judgment rather than great physical skills. And this is where so many Maryland riders display shortcomings.
Perhaps the most elementary precept of the profession is the importance of saving ground on the turns. The difference between going four-wide and saving ground on the rail will make the difference between victory and defeat in many races, yet many members of the local jockey colony seem irresistibly drawn to the outside fence. When a jockey goes six-wide he gets an automatic minus.
It shouldn't be so tough for a jockey to judge the pace of a race intelligently. Even if he doesn't have the proverbial "clock in his head," a rider should be able to analyze a race, see how much speed is in a field and plan his tactics accordingly. Yet few Maryland riders act as if they have glanced at a racing form before the race. Hunter got a minus for his performance in Sunday's stakes.
Jockeys get special credit for "reading" a track bias and getting their mounts to the best footing -- an important skill on recent days at Laurel when the rail has been deep and disadvantageous. They get minuses for indifference, for not riding their horses out to the finish, which seems to be an occupational disease in Maryland. After accumulating at least a month of data, I am going to tally the pluses and minuses, rank the Maryland jockey colony from top to bottom and publish the results during the week of Feb. 8.
I am curious what the study will disclose. Is Kent Desormeaux really as good as his phenomenal winning record suggests? Given the fact that the odds on his mounts are always depressed, are there less-popular riders who can be bet with a similar degree of confidence? Which riders should never be bet? And who is the worst jockey in the state? Based on my preliminary research, there is a brisk competition in that category.