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For jockeys, goggles are a necessary shield against horse racing's nastier elements

If you hadn’t seen Mitole run away from the field in Saturday’s Chick Lang Stakes, you would have known the 3-year-old colt made out all right by the color of jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.’s silks and breeches. They were white when the 6-furlong race started in the mud of Pimlico Race Course. They were white when it ended.

Among all the obstacles separating horses from the finish line on those dirty days that send mud flying like discarded betting slips, visibility is maybe the most overlooked. What’s true on Interstate 695 is true at tracks large and small and in fields fast and slow: It’s not advisable to go anywhere that you can’t see.

Santana didn’t have that problem. Aboard one of the country’s best sprinters, he didn’t have to worry about the competition, much less his dry-cleaning bills, for much of Mitole’s 6 1/4-length victory, the horse’s third straight. Santana wore three sets of plastic goggles to guard against the kickback of mud, and on Saturday just one might have sufficed. Better safe than sorry, though, even after the rain had lessened into a mist by midday in Baltimore.

“The track right now is pretty bad, it’s pretty wet, and it’s hard for you, keeping goggles clean,” he said.

Like the Preakness, modern jockey goggles are a Maryland original. In 1947, a rider asked Israel Kroop, the Laurel-based son of a bootmaker, to devise a better alternative to the motorcycle goggle-style eyewear en vogue. Stitching trim around a molded sheet of plastic, adding two brass vents and attaching a strip of elastic, Kroop fashioned a thinner, better-ventilated set of goggles. They were an immediate sensation at the Laurel racetrack, and their popularity blossomed nationwide.

Little about their utility has changed in the 70-plus years since. They are a guard against grit, a a shield against sludge, a cover for condensation. And worse. Four years ago, after a 13th-place finish aboard Candy Boy in the Kentucky Derby, jockey Gary Stevens complained of another substance.

"A horse in front of me decided to, uh, soil me,” he said. “It got all over my face, my goggles.”

On a day like Saturday, the question isn’t whether to wear goggles. (Experienced jockeys can remove one set midrace as easily as a commuter might use a turn signal.) It’s how many. A speedster like Mitole might warrant as few as three. A longer track in nasty conditions might call for closer to 10. The thicker the stack of goggles, the safer the ride and the worse the peripheral vision.

Even the best-laid plans can go awry in a matter of seconds. Jockey Xavier Peréz has entered races expecting to break quickly from the starting gates, and to need just three sets of goggles. A bad start changes everything.

“I'm behind the dirt,” he said. “I just wait to use my goggles correctly.”

Until a jockey can ditch a dirtied set for a clean look, life in the fast lane is awful stressful. Peréz said a jockey can feel “half-blind” not knowing whether the horse in front of yours will stop or slow unexpectedly.

“If you have less goggles than what you expected to use, you can kind of get to a spot where you can put yourself or the horse in a bad situation,” he said.

The trouble is that the fastest way out of the spray zone is often the slowest route to the finish line. Peréz has veered away from the rail before, out of self-preservation more than anything. So has every jockey. It’s only after the race that they can echo the lament of the tens of thousands of sopping-wet fans watching them: If only it hadn’t rained.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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