Meet the 2021 Kentucky Derby Jockeys

Racing
Luis Saez, Irad Ortiz Jr., and Joel Rosario (left to right) are three members of an accomplished group of jockeys set to contest the 2021 Kentucky Derby on May 1. (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 their 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 at Churchill Downs, their stories and the horses they’ll ride on May 1. 


Eclipse Sportswire

Irad Ortiz Jr.

Age: 28

Originally from: Puerto Rico

Previous rides in the Derby: 4

Best finish: 4th in 2019 (Improbable)

His 2021 Derby horse: Known Agenda

Irad Ortiz Jr. is considered by many to be the best jockey in America right now. He’s won three consecutive Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey and he leads all riders in wins in 2021 by a wide margin. At just 28 years old, Ortiz already has 11 wins at the Breeders’ Cup and a Belmont Stakes victory (Creator, 2016). Irad and his younger brother Jose (more below on him) have become regulars at riding on big race days. Yet, despite Irad’s success on the big stage, he’s yet to hit the board (finish in the top three) in his four prior Kentucky Derby rides. He will have a very good shot at landing in the money this year as he’s scheduled to ride Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa winner Known Agenda. The horse has dramatically improved from race-to-race this year. He’s owned by St. Elias Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher, which is the same team that campaigned Always Dreaming (partially owned by St. Elias with other partners) to a win in the Kentucky Derby in 2017.


Eclipse Sportswire

Rafael Bejarano

Age: 38

Originally from: Peru

Previous rides in the Derby: 10

Best finish: 4th in 2009 (Papa Clem)

His 2021 Derby horse: Hidden Stash

Few jockeys have accomplished as much in their careers with perhaps less fanfare that Rafael Bejarano. He has thrived on both East Coast and West Coast circuits, quietly winning over 4,000 races – nearly 250 of those victories being graded stakes races. Originally from Peru, Bejarano moved to the U.S. in 2002 and credits legendary Peruvian jockey and Kentucky Derby winner Edgar Prado with being his mentor. A five-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Bejarano hasn’t had quite the same success on the first Saturday in May. He’ll look to reverse his fortunes this year when he rides Hidden Stash in the Derby. Expected to go off as a long shot in the race, Hidden Stash figures to be making a late charge as he’s done in finishing in the top four in each of his Kentucky Derby prep races.


Adam Coglianese/NYRA

Kendrick Carmouche

Age: 37

Originally from: Louisiana

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2021 Derby horse: Bourbonic

The past six months have represented the best stretch of racing in the two-decades long career of Kendrick Carmouche. As a rider who enjoyed a lot of success for years on the smaller Pennsylvania circuit, Carmouche decided to relocate to New York a few years to test his talents against some of the best jockeys in the country. Not only did Carmouche win his first riding title in New York this past December, he also won his first Grade 1 race of his career at Aqueduct when he led True Timber to victory in the Cigar Mile Handicap. Carmouche added a second career Grade 1 victory to his résumé in early April when he shocked the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino with 72.25-1 longshot Bourbonic. The horse earned his spot in the Kentucky Derby with that victory and Kendrick hopes to make the most of the opportunity in his first chance to ride in America’s biggest race.


Coady Photography

Luis Saez

Age: 28

Originally from: Panama

Previous rides in the Derby: 7

Best finish: 7th in 2016 (Brody’s Cause)

His 2021 Derby horse: Essential Quality

While his Kentucky Derby record doesn’t show any victories, Luis Saez has crossed the finish line first in America’s most famous race. Saez was memorably – and lamentably for him – the rider aboard Maximum Security in 2019 when the horse was disqualified from first and placed 17th for interfering with other horses in the race. The painful setback didn’t stop Saez from continuing his climb up the ranks of the nation’s best jockeys. Last year, he ranked third among all riders in the country in both wins and earnings. This year, he’ll again have a legitimate shot at being aboard the horse who storms home first in the Derby as he’s scheduled to ride undefeated Essential Quality. The horse won his first career race at Churchill Downs and went on to win four more races in which he defeated a number of the horses he’ll go up against on the first Saturday in May.


Eclipse Sportswire

Flavien Prat

Age: 28

Originally from: France

Previous rides in the Derby: 3

Best finish: 1st in 2019 (Country House)

His 2021 Derby horse: Hot Rod Charlie

Speaking of the drama surrounding the 2019 Kentucky Derby, the biggest beneficiaries of the Maximum Security disqualification were the ultimate winner Country House and his jockey Flavien Prat. That victory, at odds of 65.20-to-1, was the first win in a Triple Crown race for Prat, who grew up in France as the son of a horse trainer. Prat initially came to the U.S. in 2009 and began riding periodically during the winter in Southern California. Prat’s first full season in North America was 2015, and he finished second in the standings of the Del Mar summer meet. In the years since, he’s won multiple riding titles in California and has stamped himself one of the best riders in the country. He also has three Breeders’ Cup victories. For those reasons, Prat was tapped to ride Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie. The horse has only raced twice in 2021 after finishing second to likely Derby favorite Essential Quality in last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.


Eclipse Sportswire

Jose Ortiz

Age: 27

Originally from: Puerto Rico

Previous rides in the Derby: 5

Best finish: 2nd in 2018 (Good Magic)

His 2021 Derby horse: Dynamic One

The younger of the Ortiz Brothers, Jose, has an edge over Irad in Kentucky Derby starts and in recent success in the race. In his five previous starts in the Derby, Jose has three times earned a top-five placing. In 2019, Jose finished third in the race aboard Tacitus; a year earlier he finished second with Good Magic. Ortiz entered 2020 off of three consecutive years in which he finished first or second in the nation in purse earnings. He’s also a three-time Breeders’ Cup winner and has captured multiple riding titles in New York. He and Dynamic One earned their spot in this year’s Derby by finishing second in New York’s most important Kentucky Derby prep race, the Wood Memorial Stakes. They were 15.60-1 longshots that day and they’re likely to go off as even longer shots on Derby Day.


Eclipse Sportswire

Ricardo Santana Jr.

Age: 28

Originally from: Panama

Previous rides in the Derby: 6

Best finish: 5th in 2020 (Max Player)

His 2021 Derby horse: Super Stock

Ricardo Santana Jr. enjoyed his best Kentucky Derby result last year when he rode Max Player to a late-closing fifth-place finish. He’ll likely be moving late in the race again this year with Super Stock, a horse who closed from off the pace to upset the Arkansas Derby at odds of 12.20-to-1. Like Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay Jr. and Braulio Baeza, 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 – leading the Oaklawn Park jockey standings in wins from 2013-18 and again from 2020-21 – and he picked up a second Breeders’ Cup win last year while riding Fire at Will in the Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America. Their odds that day were 30.20-to-1. So, if you’re looking for a rider who’s capable of winning aboard a longshot, Santana might be your guy.


Eclipse Sportswire

John Velazquez

Age: 49

Originally from: Puerto Rico

Previous rides in the Derby: 22

Best finish: 1st in 2011 (Animal Kingdom), 2017 (Always Dreaming) and 2020 (Authentic)

His 2021 Derby horse: Medina Spirit

John Velazquez will arrive at Churchill Downs with the most impressive credentials of any rider in the Kentucky Derby. Velazquez notched his third Derby win in 2020 aboard eventual Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Authentic. It was a second Kentucky Derby triumph in the span of four years for Velazquez. This year, he’s back aboard a horse for legendary trainer Bob Baffert, for whom Velasquez rode Authentic. His mount this year is a far less-heralded colt named Medina Spirit who has finished in the runner-up spot in three of his four Kentucky Derby prep races. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, Velazquez is already established as one of the greatest jockeys ever. He’s the all-time leader in earnings amongst jockeys in North America. With more than 6,200 wins, Velazquez also 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: 12

Best finish: 4th in 2017 (Classic Empire)

His 2021 Derby horse: Helium

Despite having never finished in the top three in his 12 career Derby starts, Julien Leparoux has often managed to get better-than-expected results out of the long shots he’s been aboard. At odds of 27.50-to-1, he finished sixth last year with Storm the Court; In 2019, he finished in the same spot while riding 58.60-to-1 shot Master Fencer. He’ll be aboard another longer-priced horse in this year’s Derby, the surprising Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Helium. 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.


Eclipse Sportswire

Mike Smith

Age: 55

Originally from: New Mexico

Previous rides in the Derby: 26

Best finish: 1st in 2005 (Giacomo) and 2018 (Justify)

His 2021 Derby horse: Midnight Bourbon

“Big Money” Mike Smith enjoyed an epic ride to Triple Crown glory with Justify in 2018. It was an exclamation point on a career that’s seen him win more than 5,600 races, seven total Triple Crown series races and a record 26 Breeder’s Cup races. This will be Smith’s 27th Kentucky Derby and he is scheduled to ride Midnight Bourbon. The horse won the Lecomte Stakes in January at the Fair Grounds and ran well in two ensuing races including a runner-up finish to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby. Midnight Bourbon is expected to be a longshot on the first Saturday in May and his rider knows a thing or two about winning at long odds in the Derby. Smith piloted 50.30-1 shot Giacomo to victory in 2005. If Smith, 55, were to pull it off again this year he’d become the oldest rider to win the Derby. Bill Shoemaker currently owns that designation for winning the 1986 Kentucky Derby at age 54 aboard Ferdinand.


Eclipse Sportswire

Javier Castellano

Age: 43

Originally from: Venezuela

Previous rides in the Derby: 14

Best finish: 3rd in 2018 (Audible)

His 2021 Derby horse: Highly Motivated

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 20 years. 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 14 career Derby rides, Castellano has only once finished in the top three in the run for the roses. He’s got a legitimate shot at improving upon that when he rides Highly Motivated on May 1. That’s because Highly Motivated finished second to likely Derby favorite Essential Quality in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April. The margin of defeat though was just a neck, which is the narrowest of any horse who has gone up against Essential Quality to date.


Eclipse Sportswire

Drayden Van Dyke

Age: 26

Originally from: Kentucky

Previous rides in the Derby: 2

Best finish: 4th in 2018 (Instilled Regard)

His 2021 Derby horse: Like the King

Born in Louisville, Ky., home of Churchill Downs, Drayden Van Dyke will be making his third career start in the Kentucky Derby. Van Dyke's career took off in 2014 when he was named the Eclipse Award winner for leading apprentice (rookie) jockey in the country. Since then, he has consistently been one of the leading riders in California. He returned to Churchill in 2018 when he won his first Breeders’ Cup race aboard Stormy Liberal in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Van Dyke recently teamed up with Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens who is now his jockey agent. Shortly after they paired up, Van Dyke travelled to Turfway Park for the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Van Dyke made a late charge aboard Like the King to win that race and earned a spot in the gate for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Despite Like the King’s strong finish in that race, he’ll carry long odds to win on Derby Day.


Eclipse Sportswire

Joel Rosario

Age: 36

Originally from: Dominican Republic

Previous rides in the Derby: 9

Best finish: 1st in 2013 (Orb)

His 2021 Derby horse: Rock Your World

Joel Rosario is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. At the age of 28, he won the Kentucky Derby aboard Orb in 2013. That same year, he finished second in the country in overall earnings and he’s been in the top five in that category almost every year since. In addition to his Derby win, Rosario’s résumé also includes a pair of victories in the Belmont Stakes and 13 firsts in the Breeders’ Cup. Remarkably, six of Rosario’s nine career Derby horses have finished in fifth place or better, and he figures to have a shot at doing that again this year. Rosario picked up the ride on Runhappy Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World. In that breakthrough victory, Rock Your World was ridden by Umberto Rispoli, but Rosario rode the horse when he won his first career race. Rock Your World goes into the Derby with a perfect record in three starts and figures to be one of the betting favorites behind Essential Quality.


Eclipse Sportswire

Tyler Gaffalione

Age: 26

Originally from: Florida

Previous rides in the Derby: 3

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

His 2021 Derby horse: Soup and Sandwich

Who’s the youngest rider in this year’s Kentucky Derby? If you guessed Tyler Gaffalione, you nailed it – he was actually born just two days after Drayden Van Dyke. Despite his youth, Gaffalione already has a victory in the Preakness Stakes on his résumé (War of Will, 2019). Prior to that, he won the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2015. A Kentucky Derby victory isn’t totally out of the question this year as Gaffalione is scheduled to ride a horse who appears to have a lot of upside and the right pedigree to get it done. After winning his first two races, Soup and Sandwich finished an extremely competitive second to Known Agenda in the Florida Derby. With a little bit of improvement in just his fourth career start, Soup and Sandwich could make some headlines on Derby Day.


Coady Photography

Marcelino Pedroza

Age: 28

Originally from: Panama

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2021 Derby horse: O Besos

If you’re a fan of cinderella stories, you’ll probably be rooting for Marcelino Pedroza and O Besos in the Kentucky Derby. Pedroza is the jockey that’s lightest on experience on the big stage. In fact, he only has one career graded stakes win to his credit and that came just a few months ago at his home track of Fair Grounds in Louisiana. That was also the site of O Besos’ last four races. He won two of those and lost the two most recent races, in which he finished behind Kentucky Derby challengers Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun. Plagued by injuries in his young career (he missed most of 2020 after fracturing his collarbone), Pedroza has still managed to win multiple riding titles on the smaller circuit at Indiana Grand and he’s been near the top of the jockey standings at the Fair Grounds.


Eclipse Sportswire

Florent Geroux

Age: 34

Originally from: France

Previous rides in the Derby: 4

Best finish: 3rd in 2016 (Gun Runner)

His 2021 Derby horse: Mandaloun

Imagine being set to ride in the Kentucky Derby and finding out 15 minutes before the race that it isn’t going to happen. That was what it was like last year for Florent Geroux when the horse he was scheduled to ride, Thousand Words, was a late defection from the Derby after a freak episode in the paddock at Churchill Downs. Geroux has other memories on Derby Day that are a lot more pleasant, including a third-place finish in his first ever Derby ride in 2016 with Gun Runner, who Geroux later rode to a Horse of the Year campaign in 2017. This year he’ll be riding Mandaloun, a horse who was high on the Derby contender lists of most experts until the horse finished a disappointing sixth in his most recent race, the Louisiana Derby. Prior to that, he’d won the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and he has a win at Churchill Downs –  all with Geroux aboard as his jockey. Geroux has over 1,700 career wins and seven victories in Breeders’ Cup races. He’s still in search of an elusive first win in a Triple Crown race.


Eclipse Sportswire

David Cohen

Age: 36

Originally from: California

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2021 Derby horse: Keepmeinmind

There are few riders in the Kentucky Derby this year whose careers have had as many twists and turns as David Cohen. After launching his career in California in 2004, Cohen went on to win riding titles at Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park (Parx Racing). In 2009, he ranked sixth in the country in wins while moving to New York, site of his dead-heat victory aboard Golden Ticket (at odds of 33.50-to-1) in the 2012 Travers Stakes. But in 2014, an injury combined with personal considerations led to a three-year hiatus from racing. He returned in late 2017 and posted back-to-back 100-win seasons in 2018 and ’19. He has also scored four graded stakes victories since his comeback began, the most recent of which was aboard Keepmeinmind in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November. Cohen and Keepmeinmind will team up again as longshots in the Kentucky Derby following sixth- and fifth-place finishes in his most recent Derby prep races. 


Eclipse Sportswire

Corey Lanerie

Age: 46

Originally from: Louisiana

Previous rides in the Derby: 4

Best finish: Second in 2017 (Lookin At Lee)

His 2021 Derby horse: Sainthood

A winner of more than 4,800 career races, Corey Lanerie is one of the living legends who has become known as a master of riding at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Although he’s won 10 riding titles at Churchill, Lanerie has only had four chances to capture the garland of roses. His best finish was a fast-closing runner-up finish on longshot Lookin At Lee in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. This year, he has picked up a late mount on Sainthood, a horse who has finished first or second in all three of his career races. Most recently, Sainthood landed the runner-up spot behind Like the King in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. He appears light on experience to make a significant impact in the Derby but the same can’t be said for his jockey. 


Eclipse Sportswire

Brian Hernandez Jr.

Age: 35

Originally from: Louisiana

Previous rides in the Derby: 2

Best finish: 8th in 2017 (McCraken)

His 2021 Derby horse: King Fury 

He hasn’t had as many opportunities on the big stage as some of the other riders in the Kentucky Derby but Brian Hernandez Jr., has made the most of his chances. The Louisiana native is perhaps best-known for his 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic win aboard Fort Larned. Prior to that, Hernandez won the 2004 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey. In the years since, he’s racked up more than 2,100 career wins, including more than 55 graded stakes. His most recent graded stakes win was in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes aboard King Fury, whom he’ll ride in this year’s Derby. King Fury was one of the longest shots in that race and he’ll likely be a big price again on the first Saturday in May. 


Eclipse Sportswire

Umberto Rispoli

Age: 32

Originally from: Italy

Previous rides in the Derby: 0

Best finish: N/A

His 2021 Derby horse: Brooklyn Strong

A globe-trotting riding sensation who started in his career in his native Italy (where he was a champion jockey) before moving to France, Hong Kong, and now the United States, Umberto Rispoli’s path to this year’s Derby hasn’t been the most traditional. Rispoli was originally expected to ride Rock Your World, whom he guided to victory in the Santa Anita Derby in early April. However, Rispoli was replaced as the horse’s rider in favor of the more Derby-experienced Joel Rosario. While the snub drew the ire of racing fans in support of Rispoli, the team behind Brooklyn Strong took notice and have secured Rispoli to ride their unlikely Derby starter. It took more than half a dozen late defections for Brooklyn Strong to draw into the Kentucky Derby field, but don’t totally sleep on the horse. He was a winner of three of his four races last year, including the Remsen Stakes. He’s only raced once this year and finished a respectable fifth in the Wood Memorial. Is a win in the Derby unlikely? Sure. Would it make for an incredible story for both horse and rider? Oh yeah!

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