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Getting a Derby mount largely a matter of luck, politics

LOUISVILLE — Jerry Hissam knows what everyone was thinking.

As the agent for jockey Calvin Borel — three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel, that is — it was a common belief Hissam's phone was filled with messages from every trainer on the backstretch trying to book his rider aboard their most promising prospects for the first Saturday in May.

Not even the man who is known as the reigning king of Churchill Downs, however, is immune from the what-have-you-done-for-me-right-now nature of Thoroughbred racing.

So two weeks out from the 137th edition of Kentucky Derby, Hissam found himself in the seemingly unfathomable position of trying to find a ride for the jockey who has owned the first leg of the Triple Crown in recent years.

"I got one call last June to ride Elite Alex," Hissam said. "That's the only call I got all winter."

The fact Borel had to wait until 12 days out from this year's Derby before he obtained the mount aboard Sunland Derby winner Twice the Appeal speaks volumes about how dicey a challenge it is to be one of the 20 riders in race's post-parade each season.

Considering Borel has won three of the last four runnings of the Derby — taking the 11/4-mile race in 2007 with Street Sense, 2009 with Mine That Bird and 2010 aboard Super Saver — one would think the Cajun-born jockey and his rail-skimming ways would have his pick of whatever 3-year-old was tearing it up on the prep trail.

As respected as Borel is for his success at Churchill Downs, getting on top mounts in the winter and spring requires a combination of sheer luck and — at times — pure politics.

"Even though there are 20 horses in there, there are so many good riders, and a lot of it is about relationships and horses they've been riding," said Todd Pletcher, who trained Super Saver but has his first-call regular rider John Velazquez aboard juvenile champion Uncle Mo and Ramon Dominguez on Stay Thirsty for this year's Derby.

"A lot of times if you have a rider who has been with you for a long time you want to stay with that commitment and stay faithful to those guys. You kind of want to go with who got you here. It can be one of those things where you can get lucky as a jockey and pick up a mount late in the game or sometimes it's a horse you have been with all along. There are a lot of different ways of getting there."

Just ask Jon Court.

Court is riding in his first Kentucky Derby this season aboard Archarcharch after more than 30 years in the saddle. Thus, it is safe to say the Louisville resident knows a thing or two about how hard it is to get — and keep — a Derby mount.

Court thought he had his Derby horse last year when he guided Line of David to victory in the Grade I Arkansas Derby only to be replaced by Rafael Bejarano, who had been the colt's regular rider previously.

"(Other riders) have some solid connections and when you have those connections you have an upper hand playing the politics," Court said. "I've been told on more than one occasion not to even use that word politics, but it comes up.

"It's just the nature of the game and you just either deal with it or you step away and do something else."

All the connections in the world sometimes can't make up for simply being in the right place at the right time.

Victor Espinoza rode maiden winner Midnight Interlude for the first time in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Though the colt wasn't considered a Kentucky Derby contender heading into the prep race, he came out of as one when he scored the upset win at odds of 13-1.

"I hardly ever use (Espinoza) any more and he picked up the mount because Martin Garcia, I had him on Jaycito," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Midnight Interlude. "Martin's the one who has done all the work (with Midnight Interlude) and he's only gotten to ride him once. It's whoever gets lucky that day. Victor got lucky and picked up the mount."

Borel certainly was not the only big-name rider left searching for a Derby mount at the last minute, or left on the sidelines entirely.

Multiple Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez obtained the mount on European-invader Master of Hounds this past Friday, Bejarano was just named aboard Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go on Sunday, and three-time Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux will be watching this year's Derby instead of riding in it.

"It's an incredibly competitive game, but sometimes when it comes to jocks it's a matter of chemistry and loyalty between and rider and a barn," said Ahmed Zayat, owner of Kentucky Derby contender Nehro. "It doesn't particularly reflect on the quality of the other jocks. It's just a very competitive industry."

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