Just before the running of The Travers at Saratoga last Saturday, Brookmeade's Elliott Burch crouched low and said to Manuel Ycaza, who was riding Sword Dancer, "Let him break slowly and then sit under wraps with him. Let the early pace run but don't get fooled by it. Keep an eye on Middle Brother because he has a front-running jockey."
A few yards away, Middle Brother's rider, Bobby Ussery, was getting his orders from Owner-Trainer E. Barry Ryan: "One of these horses, probably Bagdad or Nimmer, will set the pace. But if everyone is throwing his horse down, you put Middle Brother on the lead. Otherwise lay off the pace but close to it."
The race worked out perfectly for Burch and Ycaza. Nimmer went to the front and Middle Brother lay just off the pace, while Sword Dancer ran well in hand in fourth place and then third. Up the backside Ycaza's instinct told him the pace was false, and indeed it was. Manuel started to roll. He avoided one trap on the rail, swung to the outside and came up on Nimmer and Middle Brother, who turned for home like a close-coupled team. The three of them swept down the stretch together. Manuel took over for good inside the sixteenth pole, and Sword Dancer, his ears confidently cocked, pumped on to win going away by half a length.
Sword Dancer's victory represented an outstanding example of coordination between horse, rider and trainer. This sort of successful harmony is unfortunately becoming more and more the exception rather than the rule. Only a handful of riders have the appreciation of pace and the discipline to blend their own instincts and ability with the specific instructions given them by the trainer.
The basic difference between a fine jockey and a journeyman rider is that the former supplements his riding ability with calculated thought while the latter trusts entirely too much to luck. One trainer insists, "Thinking is the thing. While the average boy is wondering what to do, the good boy is already doing it."
Of course, this is not entirely the jockey's fault. Some trainers thoroughly confuse inexperienced boys with long-winded series of orders, while others fail to give adequate instructions. I don't suppose anybody likes to see the best horse in a race beaten because of a poor ride, and yet when this happens, seemingly valid excuses pop up on all sides. The trainer claims the boy failed to rate his horse properly. The boy says the horse was so full of run that he couldn't rate him.
"This sort of thing happens all the time," said Eddie Arcaro recently. "For every time that a trainer complains of a poor ride by a top jock, that jock usually has a pretty good excuse for what went wrong. Few races are ever run exactly the way a trainer wants them to be run, and a jockey has simply got to be given free rein to use his own judgment."
"There are," says Harry F. Guggenheim, owner of Cain Hoy Stable, "only three basic things a trainer can tell a jockey. One, take the lead; two, lay just off the pace; or three, come from behind."
"But the start," adds Arcaro, "is usually the key to the whole thing. Sure, it may be easy enough to follow orders when you get the kind of start you want, but if you don't, that's when orders go out the window and you have to start riding your own race."
"And that," injects Trainer Syl Veitch, "is where riders like Arcaro, Shoemaker and Ycaza best demonstrate their natural superiority."
Most of the successful trainers concentrate on briefing riders on the peculiarities of certain horses rather than on detailed general strategy. "The good boys," says Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, "you don't have to tell much to, and the others there's no point because they've forgotten it all by the time they reach the post."
"I want to be told exactly what the trainer wants me to do," says Manuel Ycaza, "but I want to know about the horse, too."
"Knowing your horse is as important," adds Shoemaker, "as knowing what the opposition will probably do. Most trainers who ride me make a real point of telling me about every peculiarity a horse may have, such as he likes to bear out or lug in; he rebels against sand kicked in his face if he gets in too close behind horses; he runs freer if you circle the field instead of getting him down on the inside. If you know these things and have studied the form of the field, that's when the trainer will tell me to use my own judgment."
"Top jocks are top jocks because they're supposed to have the best judgment," says Arcaro. "If they rode 100% to orders all the time, the trainers would be the first to complain."
RIDING IN FROM WHERE?
But where are the new top jocks—the new Arcaros, Shoemakers, Long-dens, Ycazas—coming from? Supposedly, the supply of great jockeys is augmented annually by one or two green but ambitious boys rolling into the big time from the bush league circuits. This is hardly true. Few of the good riders who graduated from the half-milers made a name for themselves until they swung around the major tracks for half a dozen years or more. A jockey may learn some horsemanship and a good deal about courage in the bushes, most of that from riding gang-busting, to-hell-with-pace sprints day in and day out. But he still must learn—and he learns it only from a painfully discouraging grind in the big time—that race-riding in its fullest meaning is still a beautiful and skillful combination of competitive instinct, natural ability, disciplined horsemanship and intelligent thinking.
Maybe the answer, as Mr. Fitz suggests, is to change the apprentice rule to allow a boy 10 pounds (instead of the present five) for at least his first 20 winners. This would give the major stables more incentive for using and tutoring and developing young riders.
Another suggestion—and one which The Jockey Club might well consider—is to have an organized jocks' school with a limited enrollment of promising youngsters. An occasional race for apprentices only wouldn't upset the figure boys too much and, God knows, for the rest of us it would be much more interesting than the ninth race.