Ever since April 16, Jon Court has been fielding questions about his plans for May 7, patiently answering each one in his usual polite and thoughtful manner.
After some 30-plus years carving out a respected career in the saddle, the veteran jockey is on the verge of riding in his first Kentucky Derby next Saturday aboard a legitimate mount, no less, in Grade I Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch.
With every passing day, the reality of having the loftiest of career goals materialize is setting in for Court. Thanks to years of experience and too-fresh recent history, however, there is still a tinge of restraint that comes through whenever the 50-year-old rider finds himself discussing what might be in store for him on the first Saturday in May.
"I'm still not there yet," Court pointed out during a break in his afternoon at Keeneland last week. "After last year, it's hard for me to speak confidently about riding in the Derby."
Twelve months ago, Court thought his lifelong aspiration of participating in the Kentucky Derby was about to come to fruition when he guided the John Sadler-trained Line of David to an upset win in the Arkansas Derby.
What transpired afterward was a classic example of how the only thing that matches the highs in racing are its harsh lows. Less than two weeks after the Arkansas Derby, Court learned that Rafael Bejarano — who had previously ridden Line of David but had committed to ride Interactif in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes — was getting his spot aboard the colt back for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
A jockey doesn't spend three decades in the game without having to get over losing a mount or several.
But when that mount is one you think could be your lone shot at fulfilling a lifetime goal, it's safe to say there is some sting involved.
"We were very heartbroken and disappointed," said Krystal Court, Jon's wife. "Jon is used to being moved around and taken off a horse here or there, but being that close to the Derby ...
"He had already kind of heard a rumor it was going to happen, so I was probably more heartbroken than he was," Krystal continued. "I guess he already set his mind that it might happen where I was more 'It's not going to happen.' It was hard. It took us a few days to recover from that. But this year coming back with Archarcharch makes it sweeter."
That's because in Archarcharch, Court can honestly say he couldn't have dreamt of a more perfect horse to bring him and his family to this stage.
Aside from the fact Court has been aboard Archarcharch for all six of the colt's career starts — highlighted by two graded-stakes wins — there is another reason there isn't much danger of him losing this ride any time soon.
Archarcharch is trained by Court's father-in-law, Jinks Fires, himself the product of one of racing's most well-respected families.
Though his brother Earlie Fires rode in six Kentucky Derbys during his Hall of Fame career, Jinks Fires will be saddling his first Derby starter after nearly 50 years of conditioning horses.
"I feel very fortunate to ride for family. Of course it touches you down to your core and runs deeper than the basic surfaces," Jon Court said. "In this situation, I'm just so confident things will go forward in the right direction. Not every day will be a bed of roses, but every day we get up we have the attitude it will be a bed of roses."
It is Court's unfailingly positive attitude that has both put him in his current position and allowed him to persevere through the hardships that come with his profession.
A native of Florida, Court rode his first winner at age 19 in 1980 and went on to make 3,555 more trips to the winner's circle. Though he carved out a solid niche on the Midwest circuit — dominating Hoosier Park in the late 1990s — Court had to prove himself repeatedly before big-race success would come his way.
It wasn't until November 1999 that Court earned his first graded-stakes win, that coming aboard Humble Clerk in the Grade III Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. That milestone fittingly came when his career was on its highest upswing as the 1999 season was part of a five-year streak where Court rode 200 or more winners each year.
In 2004, he shifted to California and held his own in that tough colony for nearly five years before heading back to Kentucky. While on the West Coast, Court rode such top mounts as turf champion Leroidesanimaux and Grade I winner Healthy Addiction.
"Over the years, I've found I don't need to validate myself to anyone other than continuing on a day-to-day basis to prove I'm still capable of delivering and competing with some of the top riders in the country," Court said. "It can be frustrating (to have to keep proving yourself) but ... I'm at the stage in my life where I'm pretty comfortable and confident with where I'm at and what I'm doing.
"There are times I've lost hope when I've laid on the track and there are times I've lost hope after losing a race. But it wasn't long before it rebounded."
Just as Court has married his easygoing nature with his competitive fire, the same can be said for Archarcharch.
Owned by Bob and Loval Yagos, the son of Arch has had a similar steady progression during his young career. He broke his maiden second time out going 6 furlongs at Fair Grounds in December, and earned his first graded- stakes win when he captured the Grade III Southwest Stakes in February.
Though Archarcharch ran third in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 19, that effort was actually a testament to the colt's steely mindset. Alternation flipped over in the gate next to Archarcharch before the race and clipped the dark bay colt with his hooves before he was freed.
Such adversity was thankfully nowhere to be found in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16, when Court and Archarcharch rallied from well off the pace to hold off Nehro by a neck.
"Our horse is a very laid-back kind of horse and Jon has those kind of quiet hands that fit him," Jinks Fires said. "He has the ability to be patient and wait until it's time to go. Sometimes riders get concerned that they're getting too far out of it and move too quick. Jon just deals with everything as if that's the way it's supposed to be."
Barring last-minute injury or illness, there appears to be little that will keep Court from finally feeling the rush of being in the Kentucky Derby post parade.
As much as he yearned for that moment in the past, the fact it has manifested this year with this horse has the look of something that was meant to be.
"Last year, I thought, 'Here is our shot and it's not going to happen,' " Krystal Court said. "I do think that maybe it happened this way so we can have the whole family in on it. It's my dad's first and my husband's first, and all these dues they've paid are finally paying back."