Court Leaves Oaklawn with Milestones

on 05/05/2022 1:03 PM

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Oaklawn barn notes by Robert Yates 5/5/2022

Jon Court’s first victory at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting made him just the sixth jockey in Oaklawn history to reach 700 in a career. Court’s final victory of the meeting was one for the ages.

Using information compiled and supplied by Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Court, 61, became the oldest jockey in American Thoroughbred history to win a $1 million race when Last Samurai captured the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles April 23 at Oaklawn.

The $1 million Oaklawn Handicap was the 843rd race in American Thoroughbred history with a listed seven-figure purse, according to Equibase. The Arlington Million Invitational was the first, Aug. 30, 1981, at Arlington Park.

Court’s victory aboard Last Samurai came roughly 5 ½ months after Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 5 at Del Mar aboard Corniche. Smith turned 56 Aug. 10.

The legendary Bill Shoemaker was 50 when he won the inaugural Arlington Million Invitational aboard John Henry and 56 when he won the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in 1987 aboard Ferdinand. Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark, now retired, also was 56 when he won the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) aboard Lovely Maria in 2015 at Churchill Downs.

But no jockey continues to outrun Father Time like Court, who, in 2019 at 58, became the oldest jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby and now is the first to win a $1 million Thoroughbred race in the United States as a sexagenarian.

“It’s very satisfying,” Court said April 24, moments after his final mount of the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting. “To get to ride in these races day-to-day, it keeps you very humbled, too, because it’s work and it’s hard and it’s difficult. Just to get there in the afternoon, much less on something live, and then to have something like yesterday transpire, it just makes you really appreciate the effort and the commitment and dedication just to get anything going in this game.”

Court rode Last Samurai ($27.80) for trainer Dallas Stewart and prominent Marshall, Ark., owner Willis Horton, perhaps the jockey’s biggest supporter. Court was aboard Last Samurai for his victory in the inaugural $150,000 Poinsettia Stakes Dec. 11 at Oaklawn and a runner-up finish, beaten a neck by a marathon star Lone Rock, in the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes April 3 at Oaklawn.

Stewart said he used the 1 ½-mile Temperence Hill as an unlikely bridge to the Oaklawn Handicap after Last Samurai had a minor setback following a seventh-place finish in the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 12 at Oaklawn.

Court, unlike previous races, sent Last Samurai to the front in the Oaklawn Handicap and the 4-year-old Malibu Moon colt remained a forward factor, even after losing the lead down the backstretch. Still saving ground, Last Samurai poked his head in front turning for home and powered away from the field in the final furlong to win by four lengths.

“He (Court) put on a clinic,” retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said before Oaklawn’s April 29 card. “He’s still a great rider and rode with a lot of confidence and believed in himself. Believed in the horse he was riding and took it to them.”

A contemporary of Court, Stevens, 59, retired from riding in November 2018 because of a neck injury. Stevens spent the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting as the agent for journeymen riders Geovanni Franco and Tiago Pereira and apprentice Jeremy Alicea and as an analyst for Fox Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races.” Both roles allowed Stevens to observe Court compete against riders more than half his age.

“He still looks good on a horse,” Stevens said. “He always had looked good and still looks good.”

The Oaklawn Handicap represented Court’s third career victory in a $1 million race. The first two also were at Oaklawn in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2010 and 2011 aboard Line of David and Archarcharch, respectively. Court won the 2010 Arkansas Derby at 49 and the 2011 Arkansas Derby at 50.

Court, Smith and Ricardo Santana Jr. (three) share the record for most career $1 million victories at Oaklawn, which has had 25 listed seven-figure races since the first (Arkansas Derby) in 2004. Santana, an eight-time Oaklawn riding champion, is 29.

“Jon’s a good friend of mine,” Stewart, 62, said moments after the Oaklawn Handicap victory. “I worked for him back in the early 80s – I was a valet. Worked for him. My wife babysat his kids. We’re close. But as far as a career, he’s had a great career and this is a big (win) for him. I’m happy for him to do it there at Oaklawn. He did a great job. We’re very proud of him.”

The Oaklawn Handicap was Court’s 20th victory of the meeting and helped propel his purse earnings to $2,137,920, a single-season personal best in Hot Springs. Court won 10 races as an apprentice at Oaklawn in 1981 – a year after he launched his career – and was leading rider in 2000 with 69 victories. His 719 victories overall is sixth-highest in Oaklawn history. The Oaklawn Handicap was his 38th career stakes victory in Hot Springs and eighth in the last decade for Horton.

“The Hortons have been great to me,” Court said. “There have been some tough, difficult times trying to achieve our goals, but something like Last Samurai coming through in the Oaklawn Handicap is great. I’m so appreciative. I just wanted to finish somewhere competitive and then to win and pull away by four – Oh my goodness! Even with 42 years of experience under my belt, it’s still tough to sleep.”

Stewart said immediately following the Oaklawn Handicap that next-race plans were pending for Last Samurai, but the year-end goal is a Breeders’ Cup race Nov. 5 at Keeneland. Court turns 62 later in the month.

“I feel pretty good for my age,” Court said.

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