It is Triple Crown season, and the team of Paul Atkinson and Caracortado is the little engine that could.
If Atkinson's name is familiar, you are a true horse racing fan. He is a 40-year-old jockey with veteran skills and limited resume. Since the Dec. 26 start of this Santa Anita meeting, he has ridden 34 races and won five. That's a good percentage, but a poor volume, the kind that makes it tough to feed a wife and two kids.
Caracortado is an out-of-nowhere California breed, who broke his maiden at Pomona in a $40,000 claiming race and got on the board as a Kentucky Derby prospect by winning the Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 10 at Santa Anita.
Mike Machowsky trains the horse, Atkinson rides him and the racing world in general remains unaware. Caracortado was 41-1 in the Derby future book last weekend.
That book will sort itself out again after Saturday's always-telling $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, one of the most important steps to the Twin Spires in Louisville. A total of 15 Kentucky Derby winners have come from the Santa Anita Derby.
Bob Baffert's Lookin At Lucky remains the big name in the West, and Baffert announced Monday he was keeping his star home for his last Kentucky Derby prep race at the Santa Anita Derby, rather than shipping him to Oak Lawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., for the April 10 Arkansas Derby.
Among those expected to start at Santa Anita are Sidney's Candy, the San Felipe winner, and Alphie's Bet, the Sham Stakes champ. Both races were run at Santa Anita on March 10. In the San Felipe, Caracortado finished third. Lookin At Lucky will be an overwhelming favorite, probably followed by Sidney's Candy.
Next in line will be Caracortado, probably at about 5-1 odds.
Atkinson says he knows the caliber of Lookin At Lucky.
"I wouldn't switch horses, even if I were asked," he says, "and I wouldn't be."
Atkinson says that out of gratitude for the ride he has and the people who put him there. If Caracortado wins, or at least shows well in the Santa Anita Derby, Atkinson has been assured by Machowsky and the owners that he will be in the saddle May 1 at Churchill Downs.
That's no small thing for somebody born in Idaho and raised on the bush tracks of Utah, who has been on the fringes of big-time jockey stature ever since he started riding in Southern California in the early 1990s. Atkinson has never had a Triple Crown mount, or one in the Breeders' Cup. He came closest on the day he won a non-Breeders' Cup stakes race for trainer Richard Mandella in 2003, aboard Memo. That was the day Mandella won two 2003 Breeders' Cup races and two additional stakes.
Now, a spot in the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/8 -mile away, and Atkinson is fighting for perspective.
"I'm trying not to think about it," he says. "So much can happen. It's a long way off. But my family started calling me three races ago, all excited."
Atkinson says he learned from what happened last year to young jockey Joe Talamo, who had the ride on morning-line Kentucky Derby favorite I Want Revenge. Talamo's horse was scratched with an injury the morning of the race.
Just getting to the Kentucky Derby gate would be a feel-good story. Atkinson has made his limited riding business work for years. He and wife, Ami, a member of Santa Anita's administrative staff, and daughters Makenzie, 12, and Sarah, 5, have a house in Monrovia.
"We bought it when the market was down, thank God," Atkinson says.
He missed 10 months of racing starting in October 2008, while a knee injury healed. And even when he returned, rides were more occasional than regular, much like today.
Helping sustain things for him over the years was, interestingly, media work. In early 2000, he missed an entire fall meeting at Santa Anita while working in the movie "Seabiscuit." A few years later, he made a TV commercial where runners, cheetahs and race horses were used to symbolize sleek Hondas. The commercial was played constantly on network TV.
"You can't believe how nice those checks were," Atkinson says.
A Kentucky Derby check would be much nicer, but Atkinson has the perspective of more than 20 years of riding to keep him on an even keel.
Saturday at Santa Anita was typical for him. He rode a horse in the fifth race that went off at 75-1. He led all the way down the hill on the turf course and then was passed like he was standing still by Mike Smith, on a much better horse. In the ninth race, he rode a 30-1 horse, longest in the race, and once again watched the field blow by him as the horses turned for home.
Not likely that will happen aboard Caracortado.
Atkinson, who says his horse has the personality of "a little pistol," knows that, in a long career of aiming at the big time, this is his best shot.