Breeders’ Cup Jockeys: Fresh Crayons and the Competitive Edge

September 27, 2017 09:48am

Every business person knows a story about a mentor or an organization leader who was an inspiration to them in style or a particular way of handling a sticky situation. The admired one had something that struck a chord, a sense memory that became a lesson or characteristic to emulate. Several months ago, I was required, in my management degree program, to expound on my bucket list of qualities that I aspire to whether specific or relating to an elite group. I addressed the strategic planning skills of a top racing jockey. And, oh, the parallels to Forbes headliners are rich as I would propose that jockeys, the outstanding ones, are amongst the best strategic planners on the planet. Every race, particularly the top stakes races require the jockey to research and plan for several sets of variables and, most importantly, to be able to adapt to the unexpected. It is a quality that cannot be found on their handhelds as it is an “at the moment” thinking and reacting process. My big three factors in their process are: core truths, competitive arena, and outside influences. As I grew up being a fan and on the outside looking in, I acquired a lot of abysmal knowledge. As a student required to research strategic business models, successful and otherwise, from the Nigerian oil fields, first responder training, technological disruptions to bogus ‘spin’ reporting, I began to draw a few analogies about my favorite sport and most particularly about the qualities that the top track pilots bring to the sport.

TIME magazine touched on the relative physics of a jockey of a Journal of Science study that was reported in 2008 containing these results:

-The horse/jockey mass weight index is based on a combination of 87% of the total for the horse and 13% attributed to the jockey, including his equipment.

-A racehorse’s back line oscillates up & down about 6 inches and 4-6 inches fore and aft.A jockey’s back line up & down is 2.3 inches and fore and aft about 4 inches.

- A top jockey is expected to weigh between 109-116, a purely physical and emotional challenge when offset with the amount of muscle and mental acuity required to control a finely tuned thorough-bred running at 37-40 mph.

- A comparative stride of a racehorse can be optically deceptive. Some just have longer legs. The lowered running positions for the horse and his pilot (in a crouch) are trained to produce wind resistance yet some horses have pedigreed tendencies to ‘carry high’. Just think about it, there are two players in this sport racing against multiples of other two-fers. What makes the top three finishers stand out?

Core Truths

“Know thy Horse” is an axiom suited for a jockey wherein he/she applies the craft of riding to the science of equine psychology. Racehorses are trained to adapt to different conditions, yet they are living, breathing creatures and they can have moments of excellence and then, in another race, demonstrate more primitive tendencies. Some racehorses are comfortable in close quarters while others need space. Some lead, some stalk the pace, and then others make one long run from the back of the herd. Some hesitate, or prop, when reminded with a whip and just letting the aerodynamic whip snap in the air near their ears is enough to get the attention focus back on-track or change a leading foot. “Know thyself” is another jockey truth that runs parallel to what Human Resource Directors call ‘emotional intelligence’. Horseracing is risky business, a game of breaking bones at the worse and affirmed strategy at its best. To compete at the highest levels of the sport demands the jockey’s courage, intellectual resolve, and a competitive drive. The very same qualities are evident in organization executives. Fresh crayons.

Competitive Arena

A SWOT analysis is an instrument used by managers to assess internal initiatives and the competition within the organization and brand environment. There are four categories: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This method relates to understanding core truths, and, for a jockey, to be able to assess what their S & W factors are as well as those of the competitors. That requires research and plenty of it, especially when their futures and their mount’s black-type legacy is on the line. The mid-week post draw is an element that quantifies the measurements that a jockey must review peculiar to the competition: the saddling, the load, the break, and the first setup. I have always had a reverence for Jerry Bailey, Richard Migliore, and Gary Stevens as they could explain, in understandable terms, how a race could set up with the potential variables, which is, of course, the product of experience but also has a quality of conveying the ‘any given day’ of opportunity and threats. Mike Smith’s post-race analysis has the drama, sure, yet it is authentic, believable, and unforgettable. Who can forget his Zenyatta-Blame media conference after what, arguably, was her best race and greatest loss? He cried and so did I, not because of her loss but because he blamed himself for taking her too far back. For any executive worth their weight, understanding failure is part of their success. And therein lies the value of how a top jockey prepares, executes strategy and “thinks at the moment”, the laws of the few whom win at the very top levels of racing.

Outside Influences

The strategy requires an analysis of what is often referred to in an MBA course as environmental scanning. How is the professional media and social media carrying the jockey/horse storyline forward? How is the track compacted and groomed and how fast does a wet track dry? What is the weather going to be like and how will that affect the horse?  What horseshoe changes are required per the trainer and farrier? How has the horse been training per the exercise rider? And then there are the connections, or owners, some of whom the jockey may have never met and they are full of questions and racing concepts.

One of my favorite riders, Miguel Mena, rode a maiden race for a syndicate that I belonged to and after her second-place rally behind another maiden (who became a Canadian HOY) turned to our novice group and reported that “You are going to have some fun with her”. Perfect connective message for our novice owner’s ears.

Victor Espinoza experienced first-hand, the impact of a horse’s fan group when he was adopted by the Chromies, the social media phenomena surrounding California Chrome. Hence, he became more adept at handing fans as well as knowing his camera angles. His name became a brand. Victor became “a connector”.

Calvin Borel examples a jockey’s track and route knowledge, particularly in 2010, when he guided the cocked and loaded Rachel Alexandra to her Oaks glory. And then, the next day, positioned the under-rated sleeper, Mine that Bird, to use his gutsy athletic racing heart to score over the touted bluegrass blue bloods in the Kentucky Derby. I have determined that ‘Boo’ knows Churchill Downs so well that he knows the depth of the tire treads on the track grooming truck.

Kent Desormeaux is another strategic track rider who can read the weaknesses of the competition and knows his mounts. And I never tire of watching Gary Stevens with his saddle frame, deft hands and yes, those blue eyes that dominated a scene in “Luck” when Nick Nolte was liberally improvising off-script. Trust me on that.

For a new fan that is learning this sport, check out the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) as well as Horse Racing Nation and DRF. There is a vast source of juicy analogies and parallels to apply to a Breeder’s Cup race. On these two days, the jockey can make the difference between the legend and the post-scripts. Think of William Dawes and Paul Revere who both rode ‘the midnight ride’ of lore. Same time. We remember Revere. And if one is witnessing these stellar races at the track, ask a handicapper (or bartender) about their favorite jockey. Very telling.


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