James Graham won last year’s Ellis Park riding title amid what likely was the toughest jockey colony in track history. Now he’ll try to repeat his crown against an even deeper assembly of riders during the Summer Meet at Ellis Park that begins Thursday and runs through Aug. 30.
Graham won the 2019 Ellis title with 26 wins to nip the 25 accrued by three-time defending champion Corey Lanerie and Tyler Baze, who had just relocated from California to Kentucky. Graham has been adept this past year in winning meet championships in photo finishes, taking the Fair Grounds winter title in New Orleans with 63 victories, one better than Mitchell Murrill and three more than Colby Hernandez, both of whom will be based at Ellis Park for the first time.
Lanerie, who has won five Ellis titles overall, was out of state riding on the last day of the 2019 meet, when Graham won two races to secure his first crown at a Kentucky track.
“We got lucky,” Graham said. “Corey was out of town the last weekend, just about. If Corey had been there, would he have won two or one? Would Tyler have gotten lucky? With a couple of better trips from the horses he rode, he might have won it too. Just luck. Riding the right horses in the right spot in the right time.”
But don’t think that the 41-year-old doesn’t take deep pride in winning his first riding title in Kentucky, after having won riding titles at Chicago’s Arlington Park and New Orleans’ Fair Grounds.
“Always, always,” Graham said. “Every win is an achievement.”
Still, he insists he didn’t think about winning the title until the final days.
“I don’t think about stuff like that,” Graham said. “I just think about the here and the now and riding races. I didn’t realize I was as close as I was. I was just doing my work, enjoying it, because I enjoy riding. And that’s what it’s about. It’s not about, ‘Yeah, we knew we were close, but we didn’t know if we were actually going get there.’ Because you’re worried about now and not what’s going to happen in three or four days from now.”
With 15 wins, Graham also had a big meet at Churchill Downs, whose meet ended this past Sunday.
“You can never expect too much in horse racing,” he said. “You hope to have a good meet. The bonus is coming out of it without being hurt, making it through and making a living for yourself.”
Graham, a married father of three, grew up in Dublin, Ireland, coming to the United States in 2002 and working as an exercise rider in Lexington. His first summer as a jockey in America came in 2003 at Ellis Park before he moved on to ride at Chicago’s Arlington Park in the summers and then on to California before returning to Kentucky fours years ago.
As the purse money got better at Ellis Park, so did the competition to win races.
Last year, Florent Geroux and Baze were among those deciding that it works well to stay in Kentucky for the summer, riding at Ellis Park except when stakes business drew them out of state. Geroux is a five-time Breeders’ Cup winner, including on Horse of the Year Gun Runner and Kentucky Oaks winner and champion Monomoy Girl. Baze was the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey in 2000.
New for 2020 are two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Julien Leparoux, California mainstays Joe Talamo and Martin Garcia, Louisiana stalwart Colby Hernandez (brother of Kentucky-based Brian Hernandez) and the up-and-coming Mitchell Murrill, along with the return of two-time Ellis champ Rafael Bejarano after 13 years in California. That’s in addition to the strong cast of regulars: Graham, Lanerie, Brian Hernandez, Miguel Mena, Shaun Bridgmohan and — oh, by the way — three-time Kentucky Derby-winner and Hall of Famer Calvin Borel.
“No matter where you go in Kentucky, it’s always tough,” Graham said. “You’ve got a lot of good riders. Miguel Mena has a fantastic meet wherever he goes because he’s a very good rider. You’ve got Mitchell Murrill coming in; he’s been second at the Fair Grounds a couple of times. It’s not like it’s going to be easy anywhere being leading rider. And you’ve got Corey and you’ve got Brian. You got Colby Hernandez. A lot of guys are staying in Kentucky this year.
“… The riders here win races everywhere," Graham said. "To me, you hope everything goes well, hopefully get on some pretty nice stock. You look at the stock that ran last year, there were a lot of good horses who went to the Breeders’ Cup, a lot of good 2-year-olds that broke their maidens at Ellis. The quality of horses in Kentucky has always been good. The quality of the maidens at Ellis Park have always been decent, but they’ve gotten better over the past couple of years.
"People don’t want to go to New York and run against the heavy-heads like Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and a couple of those guys who are always loaded. But we’ve got good horses. It’s been very competitive the last couple of years in Kentucky, with young horses and everybody kind of wanting to stay at home.”
With the exception of Churchill Downs meet-leader Tyler Gaffalione and Ricardo Santana Jr., who both will go to Saratoga for the summer, Ellis Park’s jockeys’ room will be much the same as the Louisville track. And Santana is riding the first two days at Ellis.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an Ellis Park jockey colony this deep, and I’ve been going to every meet since I was a kid,” said Jimmy McNerney, Ellis Park’s announcer and race analyst. “Since we raised our purses and the quality of racing, every year the colony has gotten better. This is obviously the strongest one to date. You can go 12 deep in here. There’s never been that many Derby and Breeders’ Cup-winning jockeys at Ellis.”