Jockeys at the Breeders’ Cup: how experience is the most valuable asset

Relaxing at Del Mar this week: 52-year-old Mike Smith, with 25 winners at a strike rate of 20 percent, has the best Breeders’ Cup record of any jockey. Photo: Anna Purdy/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders’ Cup

Experience in the saddle at the Breeders’ Cup is rare, success is rarer still. So, when a commodity is scarce, it becomes a lot more valuable. In most cases, it is only into the veteran stage that a rider accumulates enough experience to make a Hall of Fame resume. And this presents a paradox: by this stage, it makes sense that his physical powers are on the wane.

TRC Global Rankings make no attempt to discount a rider’s book of mounts from his success, but, if we did, the remainder is what he brings to every mount on average. The physical component of this residual is certain to wane over time, even if at a slower rate than in other sports. But a rider like Mike Smith has such knowledge and experience of top-class racing that he can presumably make up for whatever the ageing curve has taken away from him.

Let’s be realistic though: Smith is 52 years old. His shadow in every other sport would have long since been pensioned off, but it is one of the appealing aspects of racing that the human champions of the sport are around for us to enjoy. Smith, Gary Stevens, 54, and John Velazquez, 45, dominate the other TRC Global Rankings Top 20 U.S. jockeys in terms of their Breeders’ Cup experience – 126, 121 and 158 rides respectively – but Smith has easily the best record of the three: 25 wins at a 20 percent clip, compared with 11 wins at a 9 percent strike rate (Stevens) and 13 at an 8 percent rate (Velazquez).

The win rates of these three top U.S. riders are a lot lower than their equivalent percentages for Graded stakes in general, indicating how red-hot Breeders’ Cup racing is, and every win at Del Mar this week will require a more significant contribution from the saddle than is sometimes the case in less competitive affairs.

Top 20 riders with Modal Country USA and their Breeders’ Cup records

The table above shows the Breeders’ Cup records of the other Top 20 riders with Modal Country ‘USA’ in our rankings, whether they will be in action at Del Mar or not. Collectively the 20 have a median TRC Global Ranking Points score of 971.

By contrast, the European Top 20 jockeys (table below) have a median TRC Global Ranking Points score of 973. This isn’t fixed, but is exactly what we would like to see come out, not because of any geographical bias but because of a mathematical reality of being a jockey on the two continents: racing in the U.S. is more disparate and there are more races to go at, so the ‘strength of schedule’ component of our rankings – the quality of a jockey’s human rivals as we assess them – is slightly lower in the U.S. than in Europe.

Top 20 riders with Modal Country in Europe and their Breeders’ Cup records

As can be seen from the column with an asterisk common to both tables, world #1 Ryan Moore has won a higher percentage of all Group races won by Top 20 jockeys in Europe – 130 of the 764 or 17.0 percent - than U.S. No 1 Javier Castellano – 117 of 945 or 12.4 percent. We have presented the data this way here – percent of all races won by the Top 20 rather than percentage of all races won – because it controls for the different geographical structures of the racing programme in U.S. and Europe.

As we have mentioned several times in different contexts, European racing is more ‘top heavy’ in terms of its distribution of wins. In the same way that Galileo, Dubawi and, soon, Frankel dominate in the Sires’ category, so too do Moore, Frankie Dettori and Christophe Soumillon.

Among the Top 20 European riders, Breeders’ Cup experience is particularly scant.

Dettori, 46, and Moore, 34, are both already assured of their place in the history of the sport, and while the Italian supremo is probably not quite the same physical force as once upon a time, he is probably better than ever tactically. As for Moore, he is world #1 for a reason and 20 years younger than Gary Stevens. His combination of intelligence, experience and power is a huge advantage for a horse at the margin.

Take a look at the rest of the table of Top 20 Europeans. Now, few of their number are in action this week, but the point is that their Breeders’ Cup records betray a lack of big-time success at the same level as Moore and Dettori.

Racing in Dubai has offered extremely valuable experience to the likes of Godolphin’s 29-year-old bucks William Buick and James Doyle, especially on dirt, but the pair are a combined 0-15 at the Breeders’ Cup. The consensus in Europe has it that the talent is there, but there is no substitute for experience.

And the last comment also applies to experience of the track. When successful racing mathematicians like John Whitley (www.racingresearch.co.uk) in the UK have attempted to make ratings of U.S. riders, they have found a correlation between efficiency and experience of the track, after having discounted the quality of a rider’s book. To that end, perhaps we should keep Flavien Prat’s name in mind. He currently sits at #23 in our overall rankings, but is the leading rider at Del Mar in 2017.

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