Meet the 2020 Kentucky Derby Jockeys

Mike Smith (Honor A. P.), Manny Franco (Tiz the Law), and John Velazquez (Authentic) will ride three of the 2020 Kentucky Derby favorites on Saturday at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire/Adam Coglianese/NYRA/Eclipse Sportswire)

Whenever a horse crosses the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, the first person you’ll see and hear a reaction from is the person on that horse’s back. The jockey usually gets much of the credit – and sometimes the blame – for a horse’s finish on the track. They’re also the ones who decide where to position their horses in a race, when to make their move for the lead and what path to take in doing it. Here are the jockeys in this year’s Kentucky Derby, their stories and the horses they’ll ride on Sept. 5.

Eclipse Sportswire

Mike Smith

Age: 55

Originally from: New Mexico

Previous rides in the Derby: 25

Best finish: Won in 2005 (Giacomo) and 2018 (Justify)

His 2020 Derby horse: Honor A. P.

Most may remember the 2019 Kentucky Derby for its controversial ending. What Mike Smith remembers is what happened before the race when the horse he was scheduled to ride – projected favorite Omaha Beach – was scratched. With Omaha Beach out of the race, Smith landed a ride on Cutting Humor who finished 10th. But don’t feel too badly for Smith. “Big Money” Mike enjoyed an epic ride to Triple Crown glory with Justify in 2019 and he’s the all-time leading Breeders’ Cup winner. This will be Smith’s 26th Kentucky Derby and he is scheduled to ride Honor A. P., the highly-regarded winner of the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. If Smith, 55, were to win the Derby, he’d become the oldest rider to do so. Bill Shoemaker won the Run for the Roses at age 54 in 1986 aboard Ferdinand.

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Manny Franco

Age: 25

Originally from: Puerto Rico

Previous rides in the Derby: 2

Best finish: 17th in 2015 (Tencendur)

His 2020 Derby horse: Tiz the Law

The youngest rider in this year’s Kentucky Derby also happens to be the jockey who’ll be riding the best horse in the race – or at least the horse who will almost certainly go off as the heavy favorite. But don’t expect the pressure to get to Manny Franco, who has emerged in recent years as a top rider on the NYRA circuit. He’s already guided Tiz the Law through an undefeated 2020 that has seen him win the Runhappy Travers Stakes and this year’s first leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Franco has only had two other prior Kentucky Derby mounts and his top finish to date came in 2015 when he finished 17th aboard longshot Tencendur. He figures to improve upon that this year.

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Ricardo Santana Jr.

Age: 27

Originally from: Panama

Previous rides in the Derby: 5

Best finish: 8th in 2019 (Plus Que Parfait)

His 2020 Derby horse: Max Player

Like Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay Jr. and Braulio Baeza, Ricardo Santana is a native of Panama. He came to the United States to ride in 2009 at the age of 16. He’s become one of the top riders in America and he won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last year with Mitole. Santana also enjoyed his first top 10 finish in the Kentucky Derby last year with Plus Que Parfait. He’s hoping to do a lot better than that this year. He inherited the mount of the late-running Max Player after the horse’s regular rider, Joel Rosario, opted to stay in Saratoga rather than travel early to Churchill Downs for the Derby – and after Max Player moved to the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, for whom Santana serves as a go-to jockey. Max Player finished third behind Tiz the Law in both the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and the Runhappy Travers Stakes.

Coady Photography

Florent Geroux

Age: 34

Originally from: France

Previous rides in the Derby: 4

Best finish: 3rd in 2016 (Gun Runner)

His 2020 Derby horse: Thousand Words

Earlier in the year, Florent Geroux looked like he’d have his choice of Kentucky Derby runners. He won three key Derby prep races — the first division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Louisiana Derby — with three different horses. Injury ultimately derailed the hopes of all three runners. Now, Geroux finds himself riding Shared Belief Stakes winner Thousand Words for trainer Bob Baffert. This is the second year in a row that Geroux has gotten the call from Baffert in the Derby; Geroux and Roadster finished 15th last year.  Geroux’s best finish in the Derby came in his first opportunity to ride in the race in 2016 when he guided Gun Runner to a strong third-place finish.

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James Graham

Age: 41

Originally from: Ireland

Previous rides in the Derby: 1

Best finish: 8th in 2018 (Lone Sailor)

His 2020 Derby horse: Major Fed 

Growing up in Ireland with six siblings, Graham said he was not a good student so he followed a teacher’s advice and enrolled in a school for jockeys. It turned out to be a smart move. Since arriving in the U.S., Graham has won more than 2,500 races as he’s continued to chase his American dream of winning a Kentucky Derby. He’s only had one shot at it and that came two years ago when he finished eighth while riding Lone Sailor. This year, Graham will be riding Major Fed. The horse flashed his talent in a major way earlier in the year when he finished second in a division of Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. After coming in fourth in the Louisiana Derby, Major Fed was off for two months before returning with a disappointing 10th-place finish in the Matt Winn Stakes. His most recent effort, a runner-up effort in the Indiana Derby, has no doubt inspired added confidence in his Derby-chasing jockey.

Eclipse Sportswire

John Velazquez

Age: 48

Originally from: Puerto Rico

Previous rides in the Derby: 21

Best finish: Won in 2011 (Animal Kingdom) and 2017 (Always Dreaming)

His 2020 Derby horse: Authentic

John Velazquez wasn’t one of the main players in the controversial Kentucky Derby disqualification of 2019 but he was a bit player. Code of Honor, whom Velazquez was aboard, was also bumped in the stretch by first-place finisher Maximum Security and ultimately benefitted from the horse’s demotion. Code of Honor was moved up to second place in the race. Velazquez knows what it feels like to actually make it to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby. This year, he’ll be seeking his third Derby victory and he’s got a real shot with a mount on one of the favorites. He’ll be riding three-time graded stakes winner Authentic who most recently won the Haskell Stakes. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, Velazquez is already established as one of the greatest jockeys ever. With more than 6,200 wins, he currently ranks fourth among all active riders and 17th in wins all-time.

Eclipse Sportswire

Julien Leparoux

Age: 37

Originally from: France

Previous rides in the Derby: 11

Best finish: 4th in 2017 (Classic Empire)

His 2020 Derby horse: Storm the Court

A native of France, Leparoux has become known as a master of the U.S. turf since launching his career in America in 2005. He won the Eclipse Award as the outstanding apprentice rider of 2006, when he led the nation with 403 victories, and earned a second Eclipse in 2009 as the outstanding jockey. He’s twice finished second in the Preakness and twice finished third in the Belmont Stakes. However, he’s never cracked the top three in the Kentucky Derby, despite 11 opportunities to ride in the race. Leparoux did incredible work to finish sixth last year while riding 58.60-to-1 longshot Master Fencer. The odds might be just as high this year when he gets aboard 2019 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Award juvenile champion male Storm the Court. The horse is winless in five starts in 2020.

Eclipse Sportswire

Luca Panici

Age: 46

Originally from: Italy

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2020 Derby horse: Sole Volante 

The third-oldest jockey in this year’s Kentucky Derby will be making just his first start in America’s most cherished horse race. A native of Italy, Panici began riding in his home country and won his first race at age 16 in 1990. He won over 500 races in Europe before traveling to the U.S. in the late 1990s. Panici rides primarily in Florida and earned the second graded stakes win of his career when he guided Sole Volante to victory in February’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The journeyman rider will look to add the ultimate trophy to his mantle with the late-running Sole Volante who was last seen finishing sixth in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in June.

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Adam Beschizza

Age: 28

Originally from: England

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2020 Derby horse: Enforceable

Adam Beschizza began his racing career in his native England and made his first U.S. start in 2015. He returned in 2017 and became a regular rider at Fair Grounds in 2017. Beschizza was an immediate success, finishing just one win shy of the jockey title. Beschizza moved his tack to Kentucky after the Fair Grounds meet ended and picked up his first graded stakes win in April 2018 at Keeneland aboard Mom’s on Strike in the Grade 3 Bewitch Stakes. He’s since won three additional graded stakes and will look to build his résumé with what would be a career-changing score in the Derby aboard Enforceable. Beschizza will become the seventh jockey to ride the horse whose most notable accomplishment to date was winning the Lecomte Stakes in January.

Eclipse Sportswire

Joe Talamo

Age: 30

Originally from: Louisiana

Previous rides in the Derby: 2

Best finish: 16th in 2015 (War Story)

His 2020 Derby horse: Attachment Rate

Every five years. That has been the pattern for Joe Talamo. He rode in his first Kentucky Derby in 2010 (Sidney’s Candy), returned five years later in 2015 (War Story) and now he’s back in 2020 with Attachment Rate. However, Talamo’s best shot at the Kentucky Derby would have occurred back in 2009, as the then 19-year-old was the named rider of morning-line favorite I Want Revenge when the colt was scratched the day of the race due to an ankle issue. While his 2020 mount Attachment Rate has yet to break through in graded stakes company, he’s shown gradual improvement from start to start under the guidance of Talamo. Most recently, they finished second in the Ellis Park Derby to Art Collector. A native of Louisiana, Talamo began riding professionally at the age of 16 before going on to win the Eclipse Award as top apprentice jockey in 2007. For years, Talamo was a mainstay on the California circuit, racking up more than 2,000 wins in a career highlighted by over 120 graded stakes scores, but he made a move to the Midwest circuit and continued his success in 2019-20, taking the riding title at the recently completed Ellis Park meet.

Eclipse Sportswire

Javier Castellano

Age: 42

Originally from: Venezuela

Previous rides in the Derby: 13

Best finish: 3rd in 2018 (Audible)

His 2020 Derby horse: Money Moves

A member of horse racing’s exclusive 5,000-win club, Castellano has established himself as one of the best jockeys in the sport over the last decade. In 2017, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. That honor came on the heels of four consecutive Eclipse Awards for being the nation’s top jockey. While he’s won just about every major race in America, the Kentucky Derby has remained an elusive prize. In 13 career Derby rides, Castellano has only once finished in the top three in the run for the roses. He’d defy the odds and pull off a huge upset if he could somehow win the Derby this year aboard Money Moves. The horse has won two races out of three career starts but has yet to face stakes competition anywhere close to the horses he’ll face at Churchill Downs.

Coady Photography

Miguel Mena

Age: 33

Originally from: Peru

Previous rides in the Derby: 1

Best finish: 20th in 2010 (Backtalk)

His 2020 Derby horse: Necker Island

It’s hard to believe that Miguel Mena is still only 33 years old, considering what he’s already accomplished – more than 2,000 victories – in a riding career that dates back 17 years. Mena, whose father and brother were also jockeys, has added his name to a long list of fellow Peruvians who’ve enjoyed success in the saddle like Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano. He’s become a fixture of tracks in the Midwest, Louisiana and Kentucky but it has been a decade since Mena’s first – and only – start in the Kentucky Derby. He finished last in 2010 when he rode Backtalk. This year he’ll be aboard Necker Island, who comes into the Derby on a seven-race losing streak. That said, the colt did finish third last out in the Ellis Park Derby in what looked like an improved effort behind winner Art Collector and runner-up Attachment Rate.

Eclipse Sportswire

Joe Rocco Jr.

Age: 38

Originally from: Florida

Previous rides in the Derby: 1

Best finish: 17th in 2014 (Vinceremos)

His 2020 Derby horse: Winning Impression

The son of a jockey and grandson of a horse trainer, Joe Rocco, Jr. was destined for a career in racing. He rode his first race in 1999 at Tampa Bay Downs and has spent the better part of the past two decades enjoying waves of success at tracks up and down the East Coast. He’s won nearly 1,500 career races and has a runner-up finish in a Breeders’ Cup race. However, his only opportunity to ride in the Derby was a forgettable one as he finished 17th aboard longshot Vinceremos in 2014. Rocco will have a real shot to at least finish closer to the front this year while riding Winning Impression. Although the horse hasn’t run well in his most recent starts, he did notably finish third in a division of the Arkansas Derby.

Eclipse Sportswire

Paco Lopez

Age: 34

Originally from: Mexico

Previous rides in the Derby: 1

Best finish: 11th in 2018 (Firenze Fire)

His 2020 Derby horse: Ny Traffic

Paco Lopez won the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey in 2008. In the years since, he’s found the winner’s circle over 2,800 times and has consistently been near the top of the jockey standings at Monmouth Park. His career highlight to date was winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2018 aboard Roy H. That same year he finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby in what was his first and only Derby ride. His mount this year, Ny Traffic, has a legitimate shot at finishing in the money despite the fact that he’ll likely go off at longer odds. In his four Derby preps this year, Ny Traffic has finished second in three of the races and third in another. He always seems to hang around for a piece and Lopez should give him every opportunity to be a big factor again in the Derby.

Eclipse Sportswire

Tyler Gaffalione

Age: 25

Originally from: Florida

Previous rides in the Derby: 2

Best finish: 7th in 2019 (War of Will)

His 2020 Derby horse: South Bend

Tyler Gaffalione received the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2015, and his reputation as one of the sport’s best young riders has only grown since then. He’s already finished second twice in Breeders’ Cup races and last year earned his first win in a Triple Crown race when War of Will captured the Preakness Stakes. One race before that, Gaffalione was aboard War of Will in the 2019 Kentucky Derby when that colt was interfered with by Maximum Security through Churchill Downs’ far turn. The incident resulted in Maximum Security being disqualified in a historic decision. Gaffalione, who is based in his home state and in Kentucky but recently finished up a successful meet at Saratoga, is back for his third Derby mount aboard longshot South Bend, who he’ll be riding for the first time. South Bend is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, whose Country House was elevated to first in last year’s Derby following the disqualification.

Eclipse Sportswire

Gabriel Saez

Age: 32

Originally from: Panama

Previous rides in the Derby: 3

Best finish: 2nd in 2008 (Eight Belles)

His 2020 Derby horse: Mr. Big News

A native of Panama City, Panama, Gabriel Saez graduated from the Laffit Pincay Jr. academy in that country and began riding in Panama before moving to the U.S. in the late 2000s. He’s won more than two dozen graded stakes in the years since. Saez is the regular rider of By My Standards – one of the top horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic rankings – and was aboard the horse in last year’s Derby when he finished 11th. By My Standards is owned by Allied Racing Stable and trained by Bret Calhoun. That same owner-trainer team is behind Mr. Big News, Saez’s mount in this year’s Kentucky Derby. With Saez piloting him in April, Mr. Big News pulled off an enormous upset when he won the Oaklawn Stakes at odds of 46.80-to-1. His only race since then was a sixth-place finish in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in July. If Saez and Mr Big News are to make headlines at the Derby, they’ll need a fast pace up front and the kind of closing kick Mr. Big News showed back in April. 

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