Between them, jockeys Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano have won every riding title at a major meet in Southern California since 2008. However, in search of their first triumph in the Run for the Roses, each will ride long shots in the 137th running of the $2 million Kentucky Derby (Grade I) presented by Yum! Brands.
Rosario will be a much shorter price than Bejarano in his second time aboard Brilliant Speed (ranked No. 17 on Horse Racing Nation’s 2011 Kentucky Derby Contenders list), who he guided to a last to first victory at 19-to-1 in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (Grade I).
“I’d never been with the horse before and it’s the first time I ride for the trainer,” said Rosario. “I have to say thank you to them for giving me the chance to ride.”
Not since 1991 with Strike the Gold has the Bluegrass winner gone on to win the Derby.
Trained by Thomas Albertrani, Brilliant Speed had previously placed in a pair of ungraded stakes races on the turf at Gulfstream Park after breaking his maiden on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs.
With his first Derby mount last year, Rosario closed from a distant last to finish fourth aboard 30-to-1 long shot Make Music For Me. His physical strength and smarts compliments his cool on the biggest stages, which is evidenced by his response to what last year’s Derby experience means for him this year.
“It’s a different horse and a different race so we’ll see when the gate opens where he wants to take me,” said Rosario, who notched his 1,000th career victory in February at Santa Anita just two months after turning 23-years-old.
After earning nearly $8 million in purses in 2008, the native of the Dominican Republic had his breakthrough year in 2009 when he won riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, while finishing fifth nationally with just over $13 million in purse earnings. He also tied a Hollywood Park record by winning six races in one day.
Last year, he finished third nationally for most money won with just under $16 million, and he’s on top with $5.5 million so far this year. Although that success has earned him mounts on the best horses at usually short odds, he brought home many long shots when he first arrived on the scene in Southern California.
“We all have a confidence every time you go on the track,” said Rosario. “You want to try to win the race. It doesn’t matter if you’re a long shot or the favorite.”
Although Brilliant Speed was beaten by nearly 40 lengths in his two races on dirt last year, there is mild optimism that he can run well over the surface. His sire Dynaformer sired 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who had success on turf himself.
“It would mean a lot. It’s the race that everybody wants to win,” said Rosario. “If I win, it will be something very special.”
Bejarano was named to ride Tampa Bay Derby (Grade II) winner Watch Me Go (No. 24) on Sunday after it was declared that Anthony’s Cross, who ranked No. 21 in graded stakes earnings and needed one defection to make the field, was removed from Derby consideration due to a minor illness.
“I saw the race when he ran in Tampa Bay. He ran a really good race,” said Bejarano of the colt’s effort to win by a neck at 43-to-1. “I’m glad to pick up the mount.”
The Tampa Bay Derby only became a graded stakes race in 2002, and in 2007, Street Sense became the first horse to parlay a win there to a victory on the first Saturday in May.
The next step along the Derby trail was a lot bumpier for Watch Me Go, as the son of Deputy Minister disappointed to finish sixth in the Illinois Derby (Grade III) as the 2-to-1 favorite.
“For the Derby, any horse can win the race. Anything can happen,” said Bejarano of a race that has been won twice by 50-to-1 shots (Giacomo and Mine That Bird) in the last six years. “Especially this year. A lot of horses scratched so almost all the horses that are going to be there are very even.”
Having started his U.S. riding career based primarily in Kentucky in 2002, Bejarano gained national attention when he lead all riders with 455 wins in 2004.
The 28-year-old native of Peru moved his tack west in 2007, and a year later became just the third jockey to sweep the riding titles at all five major meets in Southern California.
With over 2,300 career wins, this will be Bejarano’s seventh Derby mount and he feels blessed to be in demand and have the opportunity to ride in the world’s most famous race.
“This is my dream. I don’t try to miss any Kentucky Derby,” said Bejarano. “Even if it’s a long shot, I’m going to do my best in the race.”
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