Jockey Aaron Gryder is congratulated by trainer John Shirreffs after riding… (Benoit Photo via Associated…)
Jockey Aaron Gryder's life is not just a story. It's an odyssey.
When he climbs aboard Blingo on Saturday in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, the most prestigious race for older thoroughbreds west of the Mississippi, he will be an afterthought.
Gryder doesn't mind that. He understands.
This Big Cap, after all, has three of the best horses in the world. All three could have easily skipped this one and headed for Dubai and the March 29 Dubai World Cup, with a $10-million purse that makes it the richest in the world.
Santa Anita will offer only $750,000, but that — as well as the chance to run in great competition at the track where they will once again hold this year's Breeders' Cup — was enough to keep Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge and Game On Dude in the U.S.A.
Mucho Macho Man won last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Will Take Charge lost by a head in that race and was the Eclipse Award winner as the best 3-year-old. Game On Dude, favored in last year's Classic, has won two Big Caps and could become the first in the race's 77 years to win three times.
It's easy to get lost in that limelight, even though the Blingo-Gryder length-and-a-half victory at Santa Anita in the Feb. 8 Grade II San Antonio was impressive.
"Hard to overlook those big horses," Gryder says. Blingo has morning-line odds of 8-1 for Saturday's race.
It's not hard to overlook Gryder. He hasn't been around much.
He is 43 now. The teenager from West Covina got his first win at Caliente in 1987 at age 17, and then proceeded to win the jockey title that year at Hollywood Park as an apprentice. Those were the days when the jockey colony here included names such as McCarron, Shoemaker and Pincay, among others.
So, there was no question about Gryder's talent. Only his restlessness. His career was always on the move. He has been to Dubai 17 times, Saudi Arabia 28 times. He has ridden in Hong Kong and during the 2012 London Olympics, he was riding at Ascot.
Gryder should have been a consultant on George Clooney's movie "Up in the Air." Gryder is a poster child for bonus miles.
Now, the racing prodigal son of Southern California has come home. For good, he says.
"I don't have any regrets," he says. "I saw the world, I saw many great places and great things. But I also mismanaged my career. It took me 26 years to learn my lesson, but I'm here now, and staying."
He returned in October. He has two children, is divorced and moved in with good friend and fellow jockey Mike Smith, a Hall of Famer who has mostly stayed in Southern California.
One night, as Gryder struggled to reacquaint himself with the racing scene here, he was at dinner with Smith. At the next table was trainer John Shirreffs and his wife, Dottie. Smith encouraged a conversation, Gryder said he'd like to work some of Shirreffs' horses, and Shirreffs said OK.
Neither was a stranger to the other. Sherriffs had trained Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and his gentle preparation of Zenyatta created a racing legend. Gryder, though mostly missing in action around the Southland, had given the racing world at least two monumental memories.
The first was in the 2009 Dubai World Cup, back when its purse was a measly $6 million. That year, he took a middle-odds Well Armed wire to wire to win by an astonishing 14 lengths.
Then, in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Marathon, a 1 3/4-mile race, he rode a 9-year-old Argentine horse named Calidoscopio. In the final turn, Calidoscopio was so far back he wasn't even in the picture. Then, Gryder turned him loose and he won going away.
That looks routine compared with last June 17 and the Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park. This time, more than 30 lengths back as the horses got to the final turn on a muddy track, Calidoscopio, now 10, revved up under Gryder's ride and won in his last few strides.
The race caller, Larry Collmus, told the crowd the winner had "come from the clouds."
After several weeks of working horses for Shirreffs, Gryder got a text message one day. It was Shirreffs, asking if he would ride Blingo in the San Antonio. Equally excited about the assignment was Smith, who had ridden Blingo seven times.
"He said he thought I had a great horse, that I had a real chance," Gryder says. "We looked at film. He told me tendencies, what to look for."
Smith, of course, was to be in the same race. He has ridden Game On Dude for eight of his last nine races and was on the favorite for the San Antonio. But when Game On Dude didn't fire and finished well back, Gryder and Blingo were the team of the hour.
After all the picture-taking and back-slapping, Gryder got to the jockey room, looked at his phone and saw a special text, coming from probably the most disappointed man in the room.
"It said, 'Great ride, man,' " Gryder said. "It was from Mike. He was 30 feet away at his locker but wanted to be sure I got it."
Saturday, Smith will be on Game On Dude again, the legendary Gary Stevens on Mucho Macho Man, and veteran Luis Saez on Will Take Charge.
In the stands, rooting for Gryder, will be mom Joyce and grandma Minnie, 93.
"I'll just get Blingo into our own little vacuum, like before," Gryder said. "Just comfortable."
Which is what Gryder says he is now too. Home and comfortable.