On Preakness Day -- or anytime there's big-time horse racing in this country -- take a moment to look out on the track during the post parade and know that you are gazing upon some of the greatest athletes in the world. Not the thoroughbreds. The men and women who ride them.
These athletes are known around the world as jockeys. Race riders is a more descriptive term, but whatever they are called, riding a 1,000-pound animal on a 2 1/2-pound saddle at speeds of more than 35 miles per hour in heavy traffic requires a combination of skill, conditioning, balance, split-second decision-making and, above all, sheer bravery that is probably unparalleled in sports.
Greatness in athletics is a subjective thing; and differences of opinion are, as the old saying goes, what make horse races. ESPN selected Michael Jordan as the greatest American athlete of the 20th century, yet in baseball, he hit .210 -- in the low minors. On that same, much-hyped, list of the supposed 100 best athletes of the century, no jockey is listed in the Top 50, although one racehorse -- Secretariat -- checked in at 35. Overall, three horses made it in the Top 100 -- Man O'War and Citation were the others -- but only two riders: Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro.
This was goofy.
The man who is arguably the greatest active athlete in the world today, race rider Laffit Pincay Jr., received no mention at all. Pincay has no mount in tomorrow's big race, which is a shame, because earlier this year he broke a record in his sport that made him horse racing's Pete Rose and Cal Ripken Jr. rolled into one.
In major league baseball, Ty Cobb's astounding career record of 4,191 career hits was once thought to be an unassailable mark of lifetime excellence. Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played mark was considered an unreachable record for endurance.
As any baseball fan knows, both records were broken, by Rose and Ripken, respectively.
Well, in horse racing, Shoemaker owned a single record that combined Cobb's skill and Gehrig's endurance: Over four decades, he took a stunning 8,833 horses into the winner's circle. But last December, on a horse named Irish Nip, Pincay broke Shoe's record, and he did so in Southern California's toughest-in-the-world racing circuit. That day, Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker presented Pincay with the keys to a '99 Porsche while noting that the Panamanian immigrant had accomplished "the final great sporting achievement of the 20th century."
"In terms of dedication," says California jockey agent Bob Meldahl, "he is the greatest rider -- the greatest athlete -- in the world."
Can this be true? Can any rider be considered worthy of such a title?
Legendary sportswriter Red Smith thought so. "If Bill Shoemaker were 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport," Smith wrote 30 years ago. "Pound for pound he is the greatest living athlete."
Dr. Robert Kerlan, the famed California sports medicine doctor, also thought so, or rather, came to think so. After Kerlan, the team doctor for the old L.A. Rams, kept receiving banged-up jockeys as patients, he became curious as to why they seemed to recover from serious injuries so much faster than anyone else. He and a University of Texas researcher named Jack Wilmore undertook a study of 420 professional athletes, testing conditioning, reflexes, coordination and strength, and were astonished at the results. Jockeys graded higher than all other professional athletes.
"I [had] thought they were just riding an animal -- and the animal was doing all the work," Kerlan said. He learned how wrong he was. Instead, he calculated, each race a jockey rode was the equivalent -- for the rider -- of running an 800-meter race. Looked at this way, their legendary powers of recuperation were no mystery, for these riders were racing up to seven times a day, five or six days a week, 52 weeks a year. They had the lowest body fat of any athletes by far, and 80 percent of them could bench press more than their own body weight. These were perhaps the most finely conditioned athletes in the world, a discovery that helped usher in the era of year-round training.
The discipline they get on their own.
Pincay, for instance, arises at 6 a.m. each day and consumes a breakfast of a single piece of fruit. He spends the morning exercising horses or at the gym doing his regimen of stretching and aerobics. He then heads to whatever Southern California track is on the racing calendar. Lunch consists of a protein bar, which he supplements with vitamins. He then rides one-ton thoroughbreds all afternoon, sometimes up to seven races a day, then heads home. Dinner is a sparse helping of vegetables and a small portion of fish or chicken. Occasionally, Pincay will indulge himself with a piece of bread -- but never any butter. The total number of calories allowed is 850 a day, each day, every day of the year, so he can, in the parlance of the track, "make weight."
He is 53 years old.
There is, of course, an underside to this pressure of always making weight. The jocks room at every major track has a torture chamber called a "hot box" or a "sweat box" where riders go to sweat off extra pounds. And the practice of bulimia is so common that jockeys invented their own word, flipping, to describe it.
"It's a constant battle," says Eddie Delahoussaye, the California-based rider who won the 1988 Preakness aboard Risen Star. "I'm packing 116 pounds, but I've been riding for 32 years, and each year it gets a little harder. Your metabolism changes, and the only thing you've got going for you is discipline."
There is something else the top riders have, too, although Eddie D. was too modest to mention it. Most of them are wonderful, if diminutive, natural athletes.
Alex Solis, who won the 1986 Preakness aboard Snow Chief, was a budding soccer player in Panama City when his father noticed how small, but well-coordinated, he was and enrolled his son in the riding school that produced Pincay. Laffit himself was a talented baseball player who worshiped Mickey Mantle and the Yankees, but who knew the scouts would never consider him because of his size. So he came to the States in 1966 and became a Hall of Famer in a sport in which 5-foot-4 is the upper limit and 118 pounds is tops. To this day, when Pincay takes his shirt off, onlookers gasp. Yet he has never lifted a weight in his life. Dr. Kerlan told people that Pincay had the best physique of any athlete he'd ever seen.
Kent Desormeaux, who won the Preakness two years ago aboard Real Quiet and is riding favored Fusaishi Pegasus tomorrow, has been riding since he was 6, but is still remembered in his hometown of Maurice, La., as one of the most natural point guards ever seen at North Vermilion High. True, size was a problem, but Desormeaux was good enough to start on the junior varsity as a 4-foot-11 freshman weighing only 87 pounds. Desormeaux used to lie awake at night and pray to God to make him taller. But maybe the Lord is a horse player.
Pat Day, who virtually owns the Preakness -- he's won it five times -- was a high school wrestling phenom in Colorado. Even though he wrestled varsity as a freshman and was often asked to wrestle up a weight class, Day's record was 77 and 7 at Eagle Valley High School in Colorado, where he was state champion once and runner-up twice.
Day also rode bulls in the rodeo in high school, and in an interview with The Sun yesterday, the Kentucky-based rider credited his bull-riding days with teaching him how to fall off a horse without getting seriously injured. "Cowboy" Jack Kaenel, who won the 1982 Preakness aboard Aloma's Ruler at the tender age of 16, was rodeoing competitively at 13. And Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat, played baseball and hockey in Canada before becoming a rider -- and he was also a lumberjack for five years. "I think it's been proven," Turcotte said yesterday from his home in Maine, "jockeys are the toughest and the fittest."
Of all the traits that define jockeys as unique, however, the one that is most inarguable is their sheer physical courage. Apparently, this was not something the ESPN mousse-heads put much stock in -- Jack Dempsey was below Pete Sampras, for goodness sake -- but heart is the essence of sport. And all race riders have heart. Since 1960, according to the Jockey Guild, an average of two riders a year have been killed plying their trade. Currently, 51 members of the Jockeys Guild are permanently disabled, 35 of them in wheelchairs. That number includes Turcotte.
"They put their lives on the line every time they get a leg up," says Mike Willman, broadcast coordinator for Hollywood Park.
Every famous jockey in the country has been injured in spills or mishaps at the track -- and moments in which he or she feared the worst. Invariably, they get right back on. Gary Stevens, who rode Silver Charm to victory in the Preakness in 1997, had his elbow broken in a scary five-horse spill at Hollywood Park in 1990 that started when Desormeaux's mount broke down in mid-race. A horse ridden by Chris McCarron, who set the riding record at Bowie as a teen-ager, slammed into Desormeaux's horse. McCarron's left thigh broke in two on impact with the ground. The horses trampling him broke the other leg -- and an arm.
Upon waking up in the hospital, the rider Marylanders used to call "Chrissie" had one thought: Sunday Silence was going to make his 4-year-old California debut and McCarron couldn't ride him. "Can't they just strap me onto the black horse and let him carry me around?" McCarron protested. Seventy-one days later, he was back in a saddle.
Two years later, Desormeaux suffered a fractured skull when a horse kicked him in the head after he was thrown. The spill left him deaf in his right ear. Pincay himself has broken his collarbone 14 times. "Every time I have a spill, it becomes a challenge to come back," said Pincay. "The first time I had a spill, I remember laying there thinking, 'I should have done what my mother said -- go to school.' "
Instead, they take us, the racing fans, to school every time they ride.
Dr. Kerlan put it this way: "Jockeys face a tremendous chance of being killed or suffering severely crippling injuries -- more than basketball players or football players or hockey players. But I think they accept this. They remind me of wartime pilots, they have the same mental outlook. I don't think any pilot thinks he is going to die on a particular flight, but way in the back of his mind, he knows it is a possibility, and so does the jock."
God bless them all.