Jon Court, who rode Long Range Toddy to an upset victory over previously undefeated Improbable in a division of the March 16 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, will team with that colt again in the $1 million, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn.
The Rebel victory left Long Range Toddy with 53.5 qualifying points for the run for the roses, more than enough to guarantee him a place in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Court, a winner of more than 4,000 races with almost $106 million in purse earnings, according to Equibase, is on course to become the oldest jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He is 58.
Court agreed to share his thoughts on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with followers of America’s Best Racing. Here is his Arkansas Derby diary, as told to Tom Pedulla:
When they talk about the Derby in Hot Springs, Ark., home to Oaklawn Park, they always mean the Arkansas Derby, not that race run in Kentucky.
Of course, they look forward to the Kentucky Derby and the traditions associated with that. But to folks here, there is one race that creates a buzz above all others — and that is the Arkansas Derby. Here in Hot Springs, the Arkansas Derby is THE race, something they again begin to look forward to as soon as the horses cross the finish line.
I start my season at Oaklawn Park before working the Kentucky circuit the rest of the year. I always enjoy my time in Hot Springs. Oaklawn management is committed to putting out a great product and to doing everything possible to ensure that fans have a wonderful time. The community responds with tremendous support for racing.
I have won the Arkansas Derby twice before, with Line of David in 2010 and with Archarcharch the next year. I know another victory on Saturday is not going to be easy. It represents a massive challenge. That’s OK. As I see it, I’ve been meeting challenges my whole career.
I rode Long Range Toddy for the first time in the Rebel. I enjoy a good relationship with Willis Horton, his owner and breeder. I know he has confidence in me, and he has given me my share of good horses to ride.
Long Range Toddy definitely fits with them. He showed me a lot in the Rebel, a race that set up very well for him. He broke very sharply from post two and put me in a great stalking position. We needed a reasonably good pace up front and we got that. The whole race I was keeping my eye on Improbable since it was no secret that he was the horse to beat. Improbable had post nine and it sure helped when he got carried four wide on both turns.
I could tell that I had plenty of horse under me thanks to Steve Asmussen, Long Range Toddy’s Hall of Fame trainer, and his staff. I rode the Rebel with a lot of confidence, feeling sure I would get a strong response from my horse when I called on him.
It was on me to get that right and, fortunately, I asked him just in time. Improbable rallied to get to the front. But once I gave my horse his cue to go, we were gaining on him with every stride. I did not know if we could catch Improbable until the last few jumps, when we got there by a neck.
I recently worked Long Range Toddy. That gave me confidence that Steve will have him ready again. I know what is ahead of me. This is going to be a stronger field than we faced in the Rebel with fitter horses. Instead of being inside, we drew post 11. I will again have to keep my eye on Improbable. There is every reason to believe he will be better than he was last time for Bob Baffert, his Hall of Fame trainer.
I will study the field as I always do, making sure I know each horse’s style. I have learned through 40 years of riding that you can study too much. I am careful not to overload myself with information because there is so much out there. Realistically, everything can change when that gate opens. Sometimes, you just have to stay out of the way and let your horse’s talent surface.
I know Long Range Toddy has talent. We will all know more about him and some of his competition after the Arkansas Derby.
I have ridden in the Kentucky Derby three times before. The last time was in 2013, when I finished eighth with Will Take Charge for Mr. Horton. I was asked if I started to think about the Kentucky Derby as soon as Long Range Toddy won the Rebel.
I would have to be flatlined if I didn’t.