For jockeys, Preakness prep is a mix of study and superstition
Toilet flushing, animal crackers and a lucky stick all part of pre-race routines
Jockey Jonathan Joyce prays for safety and running a good race before every race he has a mount in. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / May 18, 2012)
Ramon Dominguez, Eclipse Award-winning jockey the last two years, likes to have Perrier water and animal crackers in his jockey room stall. And he puts his left boot on first. Always.
They call horse racing the fastest two minutes in sports, but a jockey's preparation begins the night before and continues until the moment the starting gates clang open. That preparation is a mix of study and superstition, of time-management and personality quirks, from the Racing Form to rosary beads, from a lucky whip to a bunch of film clips.
"They are professional athletes and they are businessmen," said Richie Ramkhelawan. A valet — "equipment manager" is a better description — for more than 20 years, he will have six or seven jockeys and 14 races to juggle on Preakness day, and in the 20 minutes between races, he must pull together saddles, silks, head gear and goggles. "These guys know what they have to do," he said.
"And while they are out doing it, we clean up the mess they made getting ready," added Donald Cusick, who has been working for jockeys for 47 years. "It's like having kids around."
Between races, the jockeys will not only switch silks, they will clean boots and helmets and rinse the track dirt from their faces in their personal "face buckets." Under their silks, jockeys wear vented Kevlar vests for protection. And three or four pairs of goggles rest on their helmets — they flip the dirty ones down their necks and a fresh pair over their eyes so quickly and without thinking that none can tell you precisely how they do it.
But the real preparation for the day's races actually began the night before. At the end of a race day, the next day's tentative program is published and the jockeys begin right away to research their mounts and their competition. They might watch film of previous races or study the statistics of their past performances.
Jockeys use this information, combined with the position they are assigned for the start, to calculate a rough race plan, almost like a video in their heads.
But not every pre-race ritual makes this much sense.
When NBC commentator Gary Stevens was riding his superstar mounts, Derby winner Winning Colors in 1988 or Point Given, on whom he won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 2001, "I would change everything, from the underwear on out, for those horses. What I wore, I wore for those horses and only those horses."
His mount Silver Charm, who came within a whisker of winning the Triple Crown in 1997, had his own saddle and when the horse retired, Stevens retired the saddle, too.
"It was lucky," explained Stevens, who starred in the movie "Seabiscuit," playing the role of jockey George Woolf.
If a rider tries a new stick, or whip, and goes several races without a win, the stick will suddenly disappear. Another rider will never take the ramp — only the steps — to the paddock at Laurel Race Course.
Donna Barton Brothers, the most decorated woman jockey of her generation, says Mike Smith once told her that as a young rider, he would flush three toilets in the jockeys' room before each race. "He is good enough now that he doesn't have to do that anymore," she said.
Smith, who will ride favorite Bodemeister in the Preakness, confessed with an embarrassed laugh. "But that was more OCD than superstition," he said. "I started to feel like I ought to pay part of the water bill."
Stevens says he wouldn't look at his mount before he was given a leg up. "I'd find the trainer or the owners and talk to them," he said. "Never look at the horse."
Brothers, who will conduct the post-Preakness interview with the winning jockey for NBC while on horseback, confided that when she was riding, she thought losing was divine retribution for bad behavior.
"I remember thinking that if I didn't behave — if I thought badly about somebody — then I wouldn't win. It was punishment.
"It was only after I quit being a jockey that I realized that God didn't really have me in mind all the time."