Jerry Bailey might have placed second in this year's Kentucky Derby, but he is still America's top jockey.
Bailey has earned more than $22 million in purses by winning 225 races in 900 starts. He has won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness twice, the Belmont once, the Dubai World Cup four times and the Breeder's Cup 13 times. He's also won the Eclipse Award for best jockey of the year — the Oscar for jockeys — for six of the last eight seasons.
Just before leaving for this year's Kentucky Derby, Bailey spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Dallas and raised in El Paso, Texas. I have two sisters, one who is four years older and another who is 13 months younger than I am.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father is a pedodontist — a children's dentist. My mother taught home economics until the kids came along. Then she worked as a housewife. She died in 1975 of breast cancer, when I was 17.
How did you handle your mother's death?
It could have been worse. I could have been 7 instead of 17, but I don't think I dealt with my mother's death particularly well. It is a piece of a young man's life that is not easily overcome. I went out on the road and fell into the lifestyle of those people around me — bars and late nights. I ended up becoming an alcoholic.
What led you to become a jockey?
Texas didn't have legalized racing at the time, but my father used to frequent the races across the border at Sunland Park in New Mexico. He was so enthralled that he purchased several racehorses and has owned them all his life. I became hooked by osmosis. In addition to summer jobs like paper routes and mowing lawns, I worked at the stables.
Did you grow up Catholic?
No. I grew up Methodist but wasn't terribly spiritual growing up. Spiritually, I didn't have a basis to draw from. That's probably why I fell on the side of the fence that I fell on.
What led you to become Catholic?
I was married to my wife, Suzee, in 1985. She is Catholic, and both of my sisters married Catholics. Although I wasn't Catholic, I attended a Catholic church with my wife. She has been a great power of example to me.
We have dual residences in both Florida and New York. I went to see our priest on Long Island, N.Y., and he referred me to some members of Alcoholics Anonymous. I recovered in 1989 and am still recovering.
After that, I became more spiritual. I believe God had saved my life and I wanted to grow closer to him. I was received into the Catholic Church at St. Bernadette's Catholic Church in Hollywood, Fla., about four or five years ago. One of my sisters has also converted and the other one is debating it.
Was there a particular incident that led you to join Alcoholics Anonymous?
No, it was a steady progression. We didn't have a child at the time, and it was apparent to me that if I was going to be responsible and be a father, my lifestyle had to change. We suffered with infertility issues but eventually conceived. Our son, Justin, is now 10 years old.
Tell me a little about the daily life of a jockey. Do you ride daily, even when you're not racing? How do you prepare for a race?
Generally races run five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday.
Most mornings I'll exercise the horses that I will be riding the next day or the next week, and I'll go riding at about 6 a.m. I get on them and work them around the racetrack, not at race speed but at three-quarters speed. Then I'll go to the barn area where the horses are stabled and do some public relations with the trainers and go over the mounts with my agent. Every jockey has an agent.
If I'm able, I make it a habit to return home between 9:30 a.m. and noon, and return back to the track for my races in the afternoon. They typically start at 1 p.m. and then run every half-hour.
How does your spiritual life fit into that routine?
Every day the racetrack chaplain has a daily devotion at noon in the jockey room. Wherever I'm at, I'm usually there for devotions every day.
I'm usually away on Sunday, but I try to find a Mass. If I'm in New York, I'll go to church on Long Island. If I'm in Kentucky, I'll attend St. Paul's. If I'm in California, I have to catch a 6 p.m. Mass after the races.
How do you develop a relationship with your horse?
You either have a knack of getting along with horses or you don't. You communicate to the horse through your hands — through the reins and the bridle. That's how you control them and communicate with them. Basically, if you have something through your mouth and someone is sitting on your back and they kick your ribs, you go. If they pull on you, you stop.
The better jockeys are a bit more subtle and have gentler hands. Some jockeys talk to their horses.
What do you most enjoy about working with horses?
I didn't initially get into racing because of the horses. I liked the competition the best, and I still do. I like the actual race itself the best — from the time the gate opens to the end of the wire.
‘I realize that the reason I'm winning is that God has blessed me with a talent for winning races. That keeps my head in perspective.’
How much of a race depends upon the horse and how much upon the jockey?
Ninety percent is the horse and 10% is the jockey. A good jockey can't make a bad horse win. A bad one can get a good horse beat.
How has your faith impacted your work?
I can't say how it's affected my work, but I can say that my faith has helped me to handle life a lot better.
I've run across many people in this business who are very spiritual people. I realize that the reason I'm winning is that God has blessed me with a talent for winning races. That keeps my head in perspective.
You've said you plan to hang up your jockey uniform soon, haven't you?
Yes; it's a dangerous sport and not one you always walk away from. It also takes me away from my family a lot. I only race here in Florida three months during the winter, so the rest of the time I'm on the road. I return home every Sunday night and then have to leave again on Wednesday. I might quit at the end of this year, or next year. I take it a year at a time. At the most I would say I have a year and a half left.
What are your future plans?
I've had some conversations with a couple of networks as far as doing some broadcasting periodically throughout the year, but I do not plan to do anything full time that takes me away from my family like horse racing does.
You are one of the most successful jockeys of all time. You've earned more than $20 million during your career. To what do you owe your success?
I have to look above and thank God. I owe it all to him.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.