ELMONT, N.Y. -- Jerry Bailey might be called the designated celebrity jockey in today's 126th Belmont Stakes.
Bailey is becoming known as a jockey who picks up a mount in a famous race at the last minute and then wins.
It has happened twice to Bailey in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest horse race in America. In 1991, Bailey picked up the mount on Black Tie Affair when Pat Day was committed to ride Summer Squall, and then won the race, beating Day by about 10 lengths.
Last year, Bailey became the pickup rider on European invader Arcangues, and didn't even know how to pronounce the animal's name. He won and paid $269.20 for a $2 win bet.
On Tuesday, just a few days before the Belmont, Bailey was selected by Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham as the jockey for Strodes Creek after the horse's regular rider, Eddie Delahoussaye, became too sick to travel.
Bailey, 36, was in the right place at the right time, receiving the mount as a sort of "good guy" reward for helping out Whittingham with his horse after he shipped into Belmont Park three weeks ago.
It also helped that Bailey is the leading rider in New York and is so successful that he earns, as Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald figured out yesterday, about $600 a minute for riding a horse.
"As soon as Charlie got into town, I went over and asked if there was anything I could do to help him," Bailey said. "I had worked Sunday Silence for him, and I know how it is for guys on the road. I've had plenty of jockeys help me out and work a horse for me.
"Charlie asked me to show up at 5:30 the next morning to work the horse. After that, I just kept on working him.
"It never entered my mind to try to take the mount away from Eddie. He had been riding at Hollywood Park and had even ridden Arcangues in a recent stakes. On Monday, I worked Ulises and told the owner, Bob Perez, I'd be glad to ride the horse for him in the Belmont."
The next day, however, Delahoussaye became ill, and Whittingham called up Bailey. Perez told his jockey-for-a-day to go ahead, he'd find someone else for Ulises.
"The idea is to get on the best mount available," Bailey said.
All spring, Bailey has been a jockey in search of a Triple Crown mount. Now, after trying out at least a half-dozen 3-year-olds -- and making what he labeled the worst decision in his riding career when he gave up the mount on eventual Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin -- he still is looking for his first 1994 classics victory.
"I probably would have felt worse about Go For Gin if I hadn't
won the Derby last year on Sea Hero," Bailey said. Bailey opted to ride Irgun in the Derby after finishing second to him on Go For Gin in the Wood Memorial.
"I really feel in my heart that, at the time, I made the right decision," Bailey said. "At that time, I didn't know Irgun would be hurt and miss the Derby or that it would rain on Derby day [and help Go For Gin]. I had watched Irgun run in California when he was beaten last winter by Strodes Creek, and I saw the improvement he made after he came to New York and I won the Gotham Stakes on him."
Just to show how complicated this game of musical saddles can be, Bailey finally ended up in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on Blumin Affair after Delahoussaye gave up the mount to ride Strodes Creek in the Derby.
Today, Bailey plans to use the tactical speed of Strodes Creek to get position behind front-runners Go For Gin and Ulises and lay in the back of the second flight comprised of Brocco and Tabasco Cat. Then, he will rely on the horse's strength and Whittingham's conditioning to get him home in front after 1 1/2 miles.
"Nobody can get a horse to peak in a big race at the right time better than Charlie," Bailey said.
Since the beginning of the year, Bailey has ridden or been lined up to ride Ride The Rails, Irgun, Go For Gin, Blumin Affair, Ulises and now Strodes Creek in Triple Crown races or preps.
"Sometimes, it helps to be open, to not be committed to a certain horse or to be available if something has happened to one of your regular mounts," Bailey said. "Look at Chris McCarron. Dehere broke down. Then, Numerous didn't pan out and Chris ended up winning the Derby on Go For Gin. Look what he fell into."
After today, maybe the same will be said of Bailey.
Where/when: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y./today, 5:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 7 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)
ALocal betting outlets: Race will be simulcast at Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and Delmarva, as well as off-track betting outlets in Urbana, Elkton, Cambridge and Colonial Beach, Va.
Distance/purse: 1 1/2 miles/$658,800; first, $395,280; second, $144,936; third, $79,056; fourth, $39,528