This Summer, the Jocks Are the Talk of Saratoga

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The jocks’ room here is cramped, often sounds like the translators’ room in the United Nations and is home to one of the most decorated groups of riders horse racing has ever seen.

John Velazquez, of Puerto Rico, and Javier Castellano, a Venezuelan, are Hall of Famers. The Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and José, have received the Eclipse Award for best jockey four times between them. (Irad leads 3-1.)

Joel Rosario, a Dominican, was last year’s winner.

Tyler Gaffalione, a Floridian by way of Kentucky, and Flavien Prat, a Frenchman who recently arrived from California, round out a room that hosts 15 of the nation’s top 20 jockeys by victories.

With 17 minutes to post, a bell echoes from the winner’s circle, a nod to when public address systems did not exist, prompting horseplayers to crowd the pathway from the jockeys’ room to the paddock.

A race on the Mellon Turf Course in Sarasota Springs on Sunday.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

The riders come out in pairs in Day-Glo silks, goggles dangling from their necks, crops tucked beneath their arms, then fan out to the various numbered trees to meet their horses’ owners. Smiles are exchanged and brief instructions given.

A trainer grabs each rider’s ankle and launches him onto his horse’s back. And off they clip clop to the track, up to 11 races a day. One of the jockeys will reconvene with his connections after the race in the winner’s circle for a photo and more smiles.

Which one? As a group, these race riders have accounted for more than 1,200 victories and nearly $145 million in purse earnings, so your $2 is as good as mine.

“It’s a very deep colony,” Gaffalione said. “I mean, you can tell from the races it’s pretty spread out as far as wins go.”

Gaffalione, 27, got married just before the Saratoga season began. But his honeymoon on the racetrack has been humbling; he is finding it difficult to get into that win photo.

In Kentucky this spring and early summer, he won 65 races, twice as many as his nearest competitor. With just 12 victories and the race days ticking away to Saratoga’s Labor Day finale, Gaffalione is unlikely to catch meet leader Irad Ortiz Jr., who has 35 wins.

Gaffalione celebrated one of the 12 wins he has notched so far this summer.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Instead, Gaffalione is aiming to remain in the top 10 of the standings while taking graduate-level classes from his more accomplished rivals.

In the next locker, Rosario, who is currently second in the Saratoga standings, sets a collegial tone with eclectic music on his playlist and observations on the tendencies of other riders he watches on video replays. The Ortiz brothers teach practicums on turf riding and winning gate to wire. From Velazquez, Gaffalione has gotten a clinic on holding a position during a race.

“You can’t get discouraged,” Gaffalione said. “I just remind myself I’m riding with the best in the world.”

For Prat, Saratoga is a proving ground. He moved his tack to ride full-time at Belmont Park from California, where he has been a dominant rider since coming to America in 2015. His arrival in New York elevated the colony enough to rival the 1970s, when Hall of Famers Ángel Cordero Jr. and Jacinto Vásquez shared the jockeys’ room with Triple Crown winner Steve Cauthen.

Prat won the 2019 Kentucky Derby with Country House when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference after crossing the finish line first. He also won the 2021 Preakness, crossing the finish line first aboard Rombauer.

To keep up with the competition, Javier Castellano, 44, changed agents and aggressively sought out trainers looking for riders.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

In all, he has won nearly 200 graded stakes races and perennially finished in the top 11 nationally in earnings. Now, he wants to win an Eclipse Award as a champion jockey.

At 30, with a toddler and infant at home, Prat figured it was a perfect time to move his family before they grew too attached to California. And who doesn’t want to live in New York?

He also did the math: New York-based riders have been named champions the past 12 years.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to win an Eclipse,” said Prat, who is fourth in the standings here with 20 victories. “But if you want to put yourself in the position, you need to go to where the best are and compete against them every day.”

The young guns are pushing the greats in Saratoga as well. Castellano, 44, has responded to the new blood in the jocks’ room with some of his best riding in years.

Until the spring, the shades on the Hall of Famer appeared to be pulled closed for good. He missed six weeks of riding after testing positive for Covid-19 in March 2020. He underwent hip surgery that cost him another three months.

Suddenly, Castellano was out of favor. The powerhouse trainers that helped him win 66 races at Saratoga in 2013 and the first of four consecutive Eclipse Awards had turned to riding the Ortiz brothers or Rosario. (See Pletcher, Todd and Brown, Chad.)

Flavien Prat, of France, was a leading rider in California before moving to New York earlier this year.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Last summer, he managed only 13 victories at the Saratoga meet. It was shocking considering that this was the same track where he had won the Travers Stakes, known as the “Midsummer Derby,” six times.

So, Castellano changed agents and rededicated himself to finding his way back to the top. It meant working more horses in the mornings and knocking on the barn doors of trainers new and old.

With a new generation of riders roaming the backside, Castellano recognized that trainers had more choices, and the days where the best horses went to three or four riders were gone. He wanted to remind them that he remained an option.

“I had to prove myself all over again,” Castellano said. “You can’t take anything for granted.”

With three victories last weekend, Castellano vaulted to fifth place in the standing with 19 victories — one behind Prat. He is riding fewer horses but winning at an impressive 20 percent clip.

Asked for wise words for the younger and talented riders coming up behind him, Castellano was succinct: Get your picture taken more.

“The more you win,” he said, “the more they want you.”

Gaffalione and Emily Yagoda posed for photos while holding cutouts of the thoroughbred owners Len and Lois Green.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

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