Kentucky Derby: 4 Top Jockeys Skipping Race Due to COVID-19 Concerns
By Ed McNamara
The strangest Kentucky Derby of all time keeps getting weirder. One of the highlights of Derby weekend always has been the competition among the country’s best jockeys. Not this year.
The Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, won’t be at Churchill Downs for Derby 146 on Sept. 5, and neither will Joel Rosario. Saratoga’s three leading riders will be skipping the big race, US Racing learned Friday (Aug. 14). So will Luis Saez, who finished first in 2019 on Maximum Security but was disqualified. Of the four, only Rosario (Orb, 2013) has won the Derby.
Jockey agents Steve Rushing (Irad Ortiz, Jr.), Jimmy Riccio (Jose Ortiz), Ron Anderson (Rosario) and Kiaran McLaughlin (Saez) texted Friday afternoon saying that their star clients would not be going to Louisville for Derby week.
Rushing: “Irad will be staying at Saratoga.”
McLaughlin: “Luis Saez will stay at Saratoga and then go to Belmont.”
Riccio: “We are going to stay at Saratoga.”
Anderson: “Not going.”
Two-time Derby winner Mike Smith plans to be there Derby weekend but said he’s “pretty sure” he’ll be the only rider who will be making the trip from California. In a phone interview, Smith told US Racing Friday he would be working out Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A.P. on Saturday at Del Mar. “If he does well, I’ll be coming.”
Speaking of the mass defections, Smith said: “It’s sad that it comes down to this. You’re talking about the biggest race in the country, and some of the guys who aren’t going, like Abel Cedillo, would have had a chance to ride in their first Derby.”
Churchill Downs announced Thursday night that out-of-state Derby jockeys must undergo a COVID-19 nasopharyngeal test Aug. 24, with results delivered to the track before their arrival. They must be at the racetrack by Aug. 31 and undergo another COVID-19 test, then be retested two days before the race.
The original plan announced early last week mandated an Aug. 24 reporting date, but it drew sharp criticism from trainer Bob Baffert, a five-time Derby winner, and Smith.
“Five days before the race is better,” Smith said. “Aug. 24 would have made it a really long time to be quarantined in a hotel in Louisville not being able to do anything. A lot of them don’t have workout facilities, and you can’t even go out for a walk.”
Smith also is willing to make the trip because he considers Honor A.P. one of the few with a shot to upset heavy favorite Tiz the Law. “I have a legitimate chance,” he said. “I think my horse is good enough to win if he brings his ‘A’ game.”
Another reason to skip Derby weekend is the presence of Baffert’s superstar Gamine in the Kentucky Oaks. Hall of Famer John Velazquez rides her, and if she runs the way she did in the Acorn and the Test Stakes, the fillies’ Derby will be a strung-out parade. Velazquez also has the mount on Baffert’s Haskell winner, Authentic, with Kentucky-based Florent Geroux named on his other runner, Thousand Words.
“If you go to Kentucky, you’re leaving your business behind at your home track, and that’s a lot of money to give up,” Smith said. “Unless you win the Oaks or the Derby, you’re not going to make much money, and definitely not enough to make up for it.”
Manny Franco rides Tiz the Law, who’s 6-for-7 and may be the Derby’s first odds-on favorite since Arazi in 1992. The New York-bred is 4-for-4 this year and hasn’t been tested. Brian Hernandez, Jr. is on Blue Grass hero Art Collector, the likely second choice. Besides them, Honor A.P. and Authentic, everybody else will be a long shot. If either of the Ortizes, Rosario or Saez had a contender, they might not be staying in upstate New York.
When Riccio was asked the main reason for Jose Ortiz passing on the Derby, he said: “Horseflesh.”
Coming to Louisville would cost those four riders many prime mounts during Saratoga’s final week. Its Derby day card includes four stakes worth a total of $1.05 million, including the $500,000 Woodward. As Rosario’s agent, Anderson said: “Lots going on at Saratoga. Need Joel to be in both places. Good problem to have without sounding arrogant.”
One big-name rider bound for Kentucky is Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who will try to finally win a Derby in his 14th attempt. He’ll be on Caracaro, a distant second to Tiz the Law in last Saturday’s Travers.
“Javier’s going to go,” agent John Panagot said. “We have to sit out the last week at Saratoga and give up some business, but not as much as I thought we would.
“The original (quarantine) protocol was too much. We were hoping they would lighten it up, and they did. We also have (Ashland winner) Speech in the Kentucky Oaks. There’s a lot of money at Churchill that week, and hopefully we’ll do well.”
As for Panagot, he’s not going anywhere.
“Louisville is a mess, it’s a COVID hot spot, and I’ve been staying safe in Saratoga all summer,” he said. “Javier doesn’t need me there to tell him how to ride. I’ll be up here watching on TV.”