Fans and horsemen will once again be treated to an abundance of world class riding talent as Santa Anita’s 23-day Autumn Meet, which will be highlighted by a record 10th Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Nov. 1 & 2, opens this Friday, Sept. 27.
With Hall of Famer “Big Money” Mike Smith, America’s all-time leading Breeders’ Cup-winning jockey again ready to roll, a deep and talented pool of young riders, including Flavien Prat, Victor Espinoza, Drayden Van Dyke, Joe Talamo, Rafael Bejarano and newcomer Abel Cedillo comprise an incredibly competitive Jockeys’ Room.
Smith, who has won a record 26 Breeders’ Cup races (including four Classics), is scheduled to ride Bob Baffert’s McKinzie, America’s top ranked older horse, in this Saturday’s Grade I Awesome Again Stakes, a key prep for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2. A native of Roswell, NM, Smith, 54, has also won two Kentucky Derbies and at age 52, became the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown aboard Baffert’s Justify in 2018. He leads all jockeys with 26 Breeders’ Cup victories.
A physical marvel, Smith has a strict daily training regimen which is enabling him to thus far defy Father Time. America’s second leading rider (to John Velazquez) with career purse earnings of more than $320-million, Smith is a tireless promoter of racing and many charities, including the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.
Flavien Prat, a 27-year-old native of Melun, France, is unquestionably one of the top riders in the country and could well be an Eclipse Award finalist for 2019. A winner via disqualification of this year’s Kentucky Derby with the Bill Mott-trained Country House, Prat, who is regarded as a great judge of pace, strong finisher and fierce competitor, also won this year’s $1 million Pacific Classic with the John Sadler-trained Higher Power, who he is now scheduled to ride in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The amazing Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza, who was sidelined due to a broken neck a year ago, has come back strong this year, finishing seventh in the Del Mar Summer standings while winning the Grade I Bing Crosby aboard the John Sadler-trained Cistron and the Grade II Del Mar Derby with John Shirreffs’ Nolde. A winner of the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah, Espinoza, 47, like Mike Smith, adheres to a strict workout regimen.
A 25-year-old native of Louisville, KY, Drayden Van Dyke has been compared by many to the legendary Bill Shoemaker. Small at 5’6”, he tacks a feathery 106 pounds and is a great athlete with an unflappable demeanor. A three-time time leading rider in Southern California, Van Dyke has led two Del Mar meets and one at Los Alamitos.
Although his status was in question due to sustaining what is described as a “crush, with no fracture,” to his right arm in a spill out of the gate while riding 1-2 favorite Eight Rings in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity Sept. 2, Van Dyke has been breezing horses since this past Saturday and will be back full-time on opening day.
A perennial leader at Golden Gate Fields, Abel Cedillo, a 30-year-old native of Guatemala, shifted his tack to Southern California on a full-time basis this past summer and has made an immediate impact, finishing third in the Del Mar Summer Meet standings while impressing everyone with his work ethic and powerful finishing ability. With trainer Doug O’Neill firmly in his corner, Cedillo is a cinch to make the Autumn Meet Top 10 and could possibly contend for leading rider honors.
A 29-year-old native of Marrero, LA, Joe Talamo, who’s closing in on 2,000 career wins, comes off a solid fourth place finish this past summer at Del Mar and with Bob Baffert providing a regular supply of competitive mounts, he’s positioned to have another solid meeting.
A five-time leading rider at Santa Anita, Rafael Bejarano, 37, has come back from serious injuries to once again contend for leading rider honors. Second only to Prat in this past Spring/Summer Meet standings at Santa Anita, the popular Peruvian has good business coming into the Autumn Meet and should be flashing his signature smile in the Winner’s Circle on a regular basis.
Up and coming Ruben Fuentes, 22, and hot apprentice Jorge Velez, 21, both figure to continue their ascent up the So Cal jockey ladder. Veterans Tiago Pereira, 42, Martin Garcia, 34, Geovanni Franco, 28, Aaron Gryder, 49, Edwin Maldonado, 36, Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, 49, and others are all scheduled to ride on a regular basis and when combined with a number of top eastern-based jockeys who will be coming in for major stakes commitments, there will be no shortage of competition throughout the 23-day stand.