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Breeders' Cup 2017

Kentucky Derby 2017: Top Jockeys

Always Dreaming following his win in the 2017 Florida Derby
Photo: Leslie Martin

With all the Kentucky Derby 2017 preps completed, the favorites are finally falling into place. Some of the top horses will have the country’s best jockeys guiding them, while other riders are trying to prove they have earned their place among them.


Since finding redemption in the Arkansas Derby, Julien Leparoux and Classic Empire ride into the 2017 Kentucky Derby as the favorites. Leparoux began his jockey career in 2005 and has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbies, none of which resulted in a win. In his first attempt in 2007, Leparoux was fifth aboard 58-1 shot Sedgefield, when they broke from the rail. Leparoux did not finish that well again until 2015 on Danzig Moon. In 2012, he rode the 5-1 second choice Union Rags, but only managed seventh after getting bumped and squeezed at the start.


Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez secured his Derby mount Always Dreaming after the team blazed to victory in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Velazquez began his riding career in 1990 and had some rough introductions to the Kentucky Derby, finishing last in his first three attempts in 1996, 1998, and 1999. The jockey’s luck began to change with a fourth place finish aboard More Than Ready in 2000 and a runner-up effort by a nose with Invisible Ink in 2001. Velazquez finally earned his one and only Kentucky Derby win in 2011 with 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom. Trainer Todd Pletcher has had Velazquez aboard a Derby mount every year since 2013, but the pair’s partnership has not yet resulted in a win. Time will tell whether or not Always Dreaming will turn things around.


After having to decide between Sam F. Davis winner McCraken and Louisiana Derby victor Girvin for the first Saturday in May, Brian Hernandez, Jr. chose to stick with McCraken in an attempt to secure his first Kentucky Derby win. Although Hernandez rode Fort Larned to Breeders’ Cup Classic victory in 2012, he did not receive his first Kentucky Derby mount until last year, where he finished twelfth aboard Tom’s Ready. Owner Janis Whitman and trainer Ian Wilkes, the same connections of Fort Larned, hope to boost Hernandez’s resume with their Kentucky Derby hopeful McCraken.


With Hernandez favoring McCraken and Mike Smith seeing Mastery go to the sidelines, the Hall of Fame jockey has chosen to pick up Girvin. Smith has the most experience among the top choices, having begun his career in 1982, at age 16. Although he has been the regular rider on horses such as Arrogate, Songbird, Shared Belief, and Zenyatta, his lone Kentucky Derby win came in 2005 with Giacomo at 50-1. Smith was the runner-up in 1993 with Prairie Bayou by a head, Proud Citizen in 2002 by three-quarters of a length, and Lion Heart in 2004. He has also been aboard Kentucky Derby favorites Holy Bull, twelfth in 1994, Arrogate’s sire Unbridled’s Song, fifth in 1996, and Bodemeister, who was second by a neck in 2012. Smith may have only have the one Kentucky Derby win to his name, but he still holds an impressive record.


Javier Castellano, who has been the regular rider for Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera, is sticking with his mount for the first Saturday in May. Castellano started racing in 1996 and has won the Eclipse award for Outstanding Jockey from 2013-2016. Despite his success on the track, Castellano has not been able to capture that Kentucky Derby win just yet. Out of his 10 tries, his best finish was fourth in 2013 on Normandy Invasion. He finished sixth in the 2016 and 2015 editions, riding Destin and Materiality respectively.


Rajiv Maragh’s very first race win came in 2004, but he is still hoping to earn that elusive Kentucky Derby title. Maragh rode Irish War Cry for the first time in the Wood Memorial, where the pair won by 3 ½ lengths. Although he has little Kentucky Derby experience, Maragh has done well to finish third in 2011 with Mucho Macho Man and fourth in 2014 aboard Wicked Strong.  


By Christine Oser


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