by Richard Rosenblatt
When the starting gate opens for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI) at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, 58-year-old jockey Jon Court will be aboard Long Range Toddy, the 5-1 third choice behind — who else? — trainer Bob Baffert’s Improbable.
A solid effort by the Ellis Horton-owned Long Range Toddy (he’s already Derby qualified with 53.5 points), and it’s off to Churchill Downs for the $3 million Kentucky Derby (GI) in three weeks. Court expects to be there too, and when the gates spring open, he’ll become the oldest rider to compete in 145 editions of the world’s most famous race.
Does age matter? After all, didn’t Mike Smith, at 52, become the second oldest jockey (behind Bill Shoemaker, 54) to win the Derby last year aboard Justify? And then go on and become a Triple Crown winner?
“Yeah, I’ve come across the subject matter a lot,’’ said Court. “I’ve been fortunate to have the gift to do it and the talent to be able to participate on a regular basis. I take care of myself, so it’s awesome.”
This would be just the fourth Derby trip for one of the more well-respected riders in the business, all of which have occurred since 2011, when Court was a mere youth of 49.
“When you’re young, the dream is to pursue the Kentucky Derby,’’ said Court, who has more than 4,100 victories in a career that began at now-closed Centennial Park in Colorado in 1980. “And I always felt the dream was still alive.”
His former father-in-law, trainer William ‘Jinks’ Fires, was the person who gave Court his first Derby starter in Archarcharch, a horse who won the Arkansas Derby before finishing 15th in the Kentucky Derby while suffering a career-ending injury.
“Jon is a competitor, no matter what type of race he’s in,” said Fires, who will send out Gray Attempt in the Arkansas Derby. “He’s been able to bounce back from some setbacks and has won his share of races. I think the race on Saturday may set up good for him. That horse [Long Range Toddy] likes to come off the pace. He’s on the outside and there’s a lot of speed. He can save ground and then run them down.”
Court has learned to accept the bumps in a career that has earned him numerous riding titles on the Midwest circuit, mostly in Arkansas, Kentucky and Indiana. He’s also ridden in Louisiana and California.
He tries not to take home tough losses, or when he’s replaced by another rider for a big race, even though he’s won a share of his own — but he’s never hit the board in six Triple Crown races: three Derbies, two Belmont Stakes and one Preakness.
“I’ve seen many horses roll right into the Kentucky Derby and had another rider on it. And, for whatever reasons, I have experienced that on several different occasions,’’ said Court. “So, it’s OK. I mean it was painful the first time or two it happened. And, of course, I don’t like it. But I’m OK if something happens like that. I’m seasoned enough with the experience of knowing that that’s part of the game.”
Court, born in Gainesville, Florida, was an early starter. He knew he wanted to be a jockey way back in elementary school. In 1980, when he was 19 years old, he “swung a leg over” Neva’s Hope in his first thoroughbred race at Centennial and Neva’s Hope ran second in a $2,200 claimer. Seventeen days later, on June 7, Court scored his first career win — with Neva’s Hope, in a $2,300 claimer.
The race to the dream was on, but it took a bit longer than many expected. Although he’s ridden some top horses, such as Wise Dan, Leroidesanimaux, Will Take Charge, Archarcharch, Fleetstreet Dancer, Nite Light and Perfect Drift — and has won more than 4,000 races — it wasn’t until Fires and Court teamed up with Archarcharch that the Derby became reality. Court was the regular rider for the horse, who won the Southwest Stakes and Arkansas Derby before moving on to Louisville.
“That little horse was a lot of fun,’’ said Court. “I was with him when he first showed up on track as a 2-year-old. It was a lot of fun for the family and for all of us to be at the Derby. I was just trying to take it all in and was prepared to win.”
As sometimes happens, though, the best laid plans can fall apart in an instant. Leaving the starting gate, from the No. 1 post position, Court never had a chance as Archarcharch stumbled in the first few steps, then clipped heels with another horse and dropped out of contention.
“It lets the wind out of your sails. He stumbles, then gets back up, then takes a short step and I said, ‘I’m done.’’’
Archarcharch had actually fractured his left front leg, yet finished ahead of four other horses. He was vanned off, had surgery to repair the leg and was retired from racing.
Court, who has to be one of the most positive people in an industry under tons of scrutiny, was disheartened, but now takes it all in stride. He’s won on horses he figured were Derby-bound, but for various reasons, an owner or trainer went another way.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas gave Court his other two Derby starts, Optimizer, 11th in 2012, and Will Take Charge, eighth in 2013. Two weeks later, when Preakness time rolled around, Lukas replaced Court with Corey Nakatani on Optimizer, and with Mike Smith on Will Take Charge. In 2010, Court rode Line of David to a thrilling neck victory over Super Saver in the Arkansas Derby, then watched as Rafael Bejarano replaced him for the Kentucky Derby and finished 18th behind the winner, Super Saver.
Even though Bejarano had been aboard Line of David before, and Court somewhat expected the change, it did not sit well with his fans.
“It was an exciting experience to ride Line of David, but I kind of knew that I might not be able to get to ride him,’’ said Court, alluding to the fact Bejarano had won two previous races aboard the colt at Santa Anita.
“I just know that there was a big following in a Facebook page about keeping me on the horse. And I just really wanted to squelch that because I knew and understood.
“But the general public were pulling for me and that was really nice on their part that I had such a strong fan base, that they’d put up a Facebook page and a lot of people commented.
“And they were sharing quite a bit of their emotional opinions … They are like, ‘How are you taking this so good?’ I was like, ‘Well I’ve been here before.’ I can laugh about it. And I like that karma.”
Court has had his share of injuries; a broken wrist, some broken ribs and three broken vertebrae. Off the track, he broke a bone in his shoulder when his Harley Davidson slid out from under him, and broke some ribs while riding a raft in a wake behind a boat. He says he’s in the best shape of his life, and has no plans to retire.
“I’d like to be able to enjoy this industry as much as I have loved it, and be able to step down gracefully at my timing,’’ said Court.
As for Saturday, Long Range Toddy comes into the race after defeating Improbable by a neck in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn. It was Court’s first trip aboard Long Range Toddy.
“Jon gave him a beautiful trip and I love how he earned it late,” said Steve Asmussen.
As Court might say, better late than never when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.