Meet the Jockeys in the 2021 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic

From left to right: Jockeys Luis Saez, Joel Rosario, and Flavien Prat will ride top contenders for the 2021 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Coady Photography)

Does the jockey really make a difference in deciding whether a horse wins or loses? It’s a question we hear all the time from people new to horse racing and learning to bet on races held during the biggest days in the sport. There are few days on the calendar bigger than Nov. 6. That’s when 10 jockeys will line up aboard their horses in the starting gate at Del Mar racetrack in pursuit of Breeders’ Cup glory.

The jockeys vying to win the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic are a diverse group, and include several members of the Racing Hall of Fame as well as a few Eclipse Award winners. Get to know a little bit more about each of them and their assigned horses in this preview.

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Joel Rosario

Age: 36

Originally from: Dominican Republic

BreedersCup victories: 13

Best finish in the BreedersCup Classic: Won in 2018 (Accelerate)

His 2021 BreedersCup Classic horseKnicks Go

Joel Rosario comes into the 2021 Breeders’ Cup at the top of the national jockey leaderboard in earnings. A future Hall of Famer, Rosario padded his Breeders’ Cup résumé last year when he captured his 12th and 13th wins at the World Championships by capturing the Juvenile Fillies and Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile. He won the latter aboard Knicks Go, the same horse he’ll be riding in this year’s Classic. Knicks Go has won four graded stakes this year including the Pegasus World Cup and the Whitney Stakes. He’ll likely go off as the favorite in the Classic. A victory on Nov. 6 would not only give Rosario his second career win in the race, it would almost assuredly earn Knicks Go the title of Horse of the Year for 2021.

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Mike Smith

Age: 56

Originally from: New Mexico

Breeders’ Cup victories: 26

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Won in 1997 (Skip Away), 2009 (Zenyatta), 2011 (Drosselmeyer) and 2016 (Arrogate).

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horse: Art Collector

At 56 years old, Mike Smith is the most senior rider in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s also the winningest jockey in the history of the World Championships, owning an astounding 26 victories and more than $36 million in purse earnings. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, Smith has racked up more than 5,600 career wins overall. He’ll forever be remembered for winning racing’s Triple Crown aboard Justify in 2018, and for his rides aboard the legendary Zenyatta, the Hall of Fame racemare he teamed up with to win the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Smith will try to capture a fifth Classic score this year when he gets aboard Art Collector, who comes to Del Mar riding a three-race win streak.

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Victor Espinoza

Age: 49

Originally from: Mexico

Breeders’ Cup victories: 3

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Won in 2015 (American Pharoah)

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horse: Express Train

In nearly three decades as a jockey, Victor Espinoza has ridden in an impressive 64 Breeders’ Cup races. The bad news is that he’s only won three of those races. The good news is that he’s made them all count. His first winner came in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Distaff aboard Spain at odds of 55.90-to-1. Espinoza would outdo himself in 2014 when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with 61.70-to-1 shot Take Charge Brandi. Finally, in 2015, Espinoza won the biggest Breeders’ Cup race of them all with one of the biggest favorites of all time: American Pharoah. If Espinoza is going to add a second Classic victory to his resume, he’ll have to pull off one of his patented upsets with Express Train. Despite his expected long odds, Express Train has won three of his five starts at Del Mar including the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap

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Ricardo Santana, Jr.

Age: 28

Originally from: Panama

Breeders’ Cup victories: 2

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Fifth in 2019 (Math Wizard)

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horse: Max Player

Some of Ricardo Santana’s best moments have come aboard horses he’s ridden for newly-minted all-time leading North American trainer Steve Asmussen (pictured with Santana). In 2019, Santana guided Asmussen’s Mitole to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. It was the jockey’s first win at the World Championships. Santana added another last year when he pulled off an upset aboard Fire at Will at odds of 30.20-to-1. This year, Santana will make just his second career start in the biggest race at the Breeders’ Cup, the Classic, and it’ll be for a horse trained by – who else? – Asmussen. After a few disappointing starts earlier in the year, Max Player has shown up with a couple of his best career efforts in his most recent starts which include wins in the Suburban Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

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Kent Desormeaux

Age: 51

Originally from: Louisiana

Breeders’ Cup victories: 6

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Third in 1999 (Golden Missile)

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horse: Stilleto Boy

One of three active riders in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic who is already inducted into horse racing’s Hall of Fame, Desormeaux has accumulated more than 6,000 career wins – including half a dozen at the World Championships. His first was in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Turf aboard Kotashaan and his most recent score was in 2017 on Roy H in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. However, in 13 starts in the Classic, Desormeaux has only once finished in the top three. He’ll be up against it again this year when he rides longshot Stiletto Boy. To their credit, Desormeaux and Stilleto Boy have outrun their odds in recent starts, highlighted by a second-place finish in the Awesome Again Stakes at nearly 55-to-1.

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Flavien Prat

Age: 29

Originally from: France

Breeders’ Cup victories: 3

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Third in 2019 (Higher Power)

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horseHot Rod Charlie

Flavien Prat grew up around horses in France as the son of a trainer. But no one could’ve imagined just how much success Prat would have as a jockey, and how quickly he’d do it. Earlier this year, he upset the Preakness Stakes aboard Rombauer. It was his second triumph in a Triple Crown race – he memorably captured the 2019 Kentucky Derby aboard Country House via disqualification. Prat also has three Breeders’ Cup wins to his credit and he’s finished in the top three in 37% of his 46 Breeders’ Cup starts. His Classic mount, Hot Rod Charlie, has also made a habit of finishing in the top three – he’s crossed the wire either first, second or third in his last eight races. Hot Rod Charlie and Prat come into the Breeders’ Cup off of a Grade 1 win in the Pennsylvania Derby.

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Luis Saez

Age: 29

Originally from: Panama

Breeders’ Cup victories: 1

Best finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Second in 2013 (Will Take Charge)

His 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic horseEssential Quality

It was hard to imagine Luis Saez outdoing his 2019 and 2020 seasons but he just might be having the best year of his career. At Del Mar on Nov. 6, he’ll look to repeat what he did last year with Essential Quality (they won the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA) and capture another Breeders’ Cup race with a horse who’s only lost once in nine career starts. Saez has already surpassed his career mark for annual earnings in 2021 and his 235 wins (as of Oct. 28) have him ranked third in the nation.

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John Velazquez

Age: 49

Originally from: Puerto Rico

BreedersCup victories: 18

Best finish in the BreedersCup Classic: Won in 2020 (Authentic).

His 2021 BreedersCup Classic horseMedina Spirit

Going into last year’s Breeders’ Cup, a win in the Classic was one of the few accomplishments that had eluded John Velazquez. That’s no longer the case as Velazquez added to remarkable career with a victory aboard eventual Horse of the Year Authentic. Velazquez is the second-oldest jockey in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year and has racked up more than 6,300 total wins – 18 of them at the World Championships. The two-time Eclipse Award winner has reliably been one of the top riders in the United States for the past two decades, having been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. In addition to his 18 Breeders’ Cup wins, Velazquez has won the Kentucky Derby four times (including this year with Medina Spirit) and the Belmont Stakes twice.

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Irad Ortiz Jr.

Age: 29

Originally from: Puerto Rico

BreedersCup victories: 11

Best finish in the BreedersCup Classic: Won in 2019 (Vino Rosso)

His 2021 BreedersCup Classic horseTripoli

He’s 20 years younger than John Velazquez, yet Irad Ortiz Jr. is on pace to one day soar past the Breeders’ Cup mark of his childhood idol. At just 29 years old, Ortiz already has 11 wins at the Breeders’ Cup and he won the Classic in 2019 aboard Vino Rosso. He followed that up by finishing second to Velazquez in last year’s Breeders’ Cup when Ortiz rode Improbable. Ortiz has captured the Eclipse Award as the top jockey in North America for the past three years in a row and he’s on pace to win the award again this year. He leads the country in wins and is second in earnings through Oct. 28. Ortiz could certainly pad the bankroll aboard Tripoli in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The late-emerging horse splashed onto the scene this past summer with a breakthrough win at Del Mar in the TVG Pacific Classic.

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