Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
At most racetracks, the jockey colony will form into a hierarchy. In some places, a few different riders will vie for the top of the pecking order.
Generally, the top-class jockeys have earned the trust of the trainers with the best racing stables and are cemented as the go-to rider for many top barns.
Inevitably, as the wins start piling up, even the most casual of bettors will start taking notice. Few handicapping factors are more overrated than the jockey factor. In reality, there is very little difference in ability from the best jockey in the country down to the 50th best.
Putting a top class jockey on an overmatched horse is like putting skin moisturizer on a snake, lipstick on a pig, or a diploma into the hands of an ignoramus. It just won't make much of a difference.
Some firmly established top-class riders are grossly overbet at tracks big and small. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has ridden 1,908 races since 2012, and those mounts have yielded a 30% loss on the betting dollar. Mountaineer Park kingpin Deshawn Parker is one of just three jockeys in North America to have ridden 500 or more winners since 2012, and his mounts have yielded a 32% loss on the betting dollar over that span.
From a handicapping standpoint, the most valuable jockeys are the ones who have riding skills that far exceed their reputation. Not only is 28-year-old jockey Paco Lopez the most underrated rider in the country, but I believe he's destined to become a superstar.
So far this year, Lopez has won 201 races, and his mounts have yielded an unbelievable 11.6% profit on every dollar bet. How rare is it for a North American jockey to win 200-plus races and produce a profitable betting ROI in a calendar year? It hasn't been done by anyone since 2010. Who did it then? Paco Lopez. The last time a jockey not named Paco Lopez pulled off this feat? Kent Desormeaux in 2007.
Stats involving betting return on investment (ROI) are available only back to the year 1993. Since that time, there have been only two instances where a jockey has won 300-plus races in a year and produced a profitable ROI. They are Garrett Gomez's 1997 season and Ramon Dominguez's 2000 season.
Gomez won 307 races with a $2.11 ROI in 1997 while competing almost entirely in Illinois, at Sportsman's Park, Arlington Park, and Hawthorne.
Dominguez won 360 races with a $2.06 ROI in 2000 while competing almost entirely at Mid-Atlantic tracks such as Delaware Park, Laurel, Pimlico, and Colonial Downs.
Not only were Garrett Gomez and Ramon Dominguez both able to make the transition into the riding colonies in California and New York, but between the two men, they own five of the last six Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey. Gomez won Eclipses in 2007 and 2008. Dominguez won three straight from 2010 through last year.
The 2013 season by Paco Lopez has been statistically mind-boggling. In stakes races, he's won with 23 of 95 mounts and produced a phenomenal $3.50 ROI. He dominated the standings at Monmouth Park and won 40% of his races at the Meadowlands. However, a jockey can't truly break out until he wins a Grade 1 stakes race. Lopez had only four mounts in Grade 1 stakes races this year. His best finish came with Narvaez, who was 4th at 103/1 odds in the Florida Derby.
In plain English, Paco Lopez hasn't been given a fair chance to prove himself at the highest level. Looking through his past, one sees evidence to help us understand why.
Lopez grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, in a home without electricity or running water . He started working with horses at age 12, and by the time he was a teenager, he was riding at bush tracks in Mexico that had no steward supervision or regulations. His agent claims that Paco won about 5,000 races at the bush level in Mexico and that he once swept all 13 races at a single weekend meet.
Lopez finally arrived in the US in 2007, and he eventually won the Eclipse Award as North America's Outstanding Apprentice Jockey even though he had accumulated more than 60 days of riding suspensions and had been barred from Calder and all other Churchill Downs Incorporated racetracks right before the period in which the voting started.
The perception that he is an aggressive and possibly reckless jockey has been around since his emergence at Calder in 2008, but I just haven't seen anything at all reckless from him over the last few years.
Paco Lopez has simply been the most consistent and outstanding jockey that I've seen ride this year in North America. However, he's not going to get the recognition he deserves until he moves to New York or California and builds his business while shedding the absurd "reckless" label that still hangs over his head.