They are diminutive enough to shop for clothes in the teens’ section of a department store.
Yet jockeys are our finest pound-for-pound athletes — sorry, gymnasts — even as they often are regarded as supporting actors to the animals that they straddle.
Horse and human comprise a team, and this Kentucky Derby in six days is the rare Run For The Roses for which story lines involving the two-legged partner dominate.
Lady and gentlemen, stand up — on your tiptoes — and be recognized.
- What athlete un-retires after eight years on the couch? Whose knees were ravaged from 27,595 mounts, nearly 18 percent of them leading to the winner’s circle? Who better embodies the question, “What else is there to prove?”
In January, Gary Stevens slid from the TV announcers’ booth back into the saddle, then showed that the adage about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle applies to thoroughbreds. If Stevens, 50, gets to the gate with Oxbow, he will sit behind Bill Shoemaker (54) as the second oldest jockey in Derby annals.
- While breaking into the business, Rosie Napravnik, 25, replaced her first name with the gender-neutral initials A.R. The motivation was not embarrassment but pragmatism, having been told straight-up by some owners and trainers that they would never employ “a girl.”
Now they compete for Napravnik’s services. Two years ago, she became the sixth female jockey with a Derby gig and placed ninth, better than all forebears. Napravnik is paired with Mylute, eight years after deciding to skip her senior year of high school to giddy-up for a living.
- Though the gender barrier was impenetrable for decades, there was no racial impediment at first. Black jockeys were aboard all but two of 15 entrants in the inaugural race and won 15 of the first 28.
Soon after, they disappeared from the Derby scene, with only Marlon St. Julian (2001) drawing an assignment in nearly a century. Introducing Kevin Krigger, 29, from the island of St. Croix. Eleven patient years at U.S. tracks have prepared him to become the next black jockey getting all dewy-eyed to “My Old Kentucky Home,” the tune whose title could refer to a part-owner of Goldencents. Coach Rick Pitino was last seen snipping the Final Four nets at the Georgia Dome.
- If there is a must-have jockey in the field of 20, he is John Velazquez. Johnny V ranks third in career earnings, with Nos. 1 and 2 (Pat Day, Jerry Bailey) in range — provided he can avoid injuries like the one that flattened him April 7.
A race spill resulted in a broken rib and chipped wrist bone, enough to shelve some athletes indefinitely. But Velazquez, enticed by a ride on probable favorite Verrazano, intends to resume racing Wednesday.
So, during the drumroll to post time, gear up for an outsized share of media coverage centered on a compelling crew of jockeys.