21 October 2001

A reformed drinker at the height of his game poses the biggest threat to the European raiders on Saturday.

Success shines out of him. Next Saturday the Breeders’ Cup Thoroughbred World Championship comes to Belmont Park, New York. There waiting for them will be Jerry Bailey. A star in its absolute prime.

It is not just the statistics and the big-race honours. Only this month, at 44, he became the first jockey to pass the $20 million mark for winnings in a single calendar year – almost double the totals of Dettori and Fallon combined. And when he walks out to ride local ace Aptitude against European raiders Galileo and Fantastic Light in the climaxing Breeders’ Cup Classic, he does so as the titleholder from the last time the race was held at Belmont – Cigar’s unmatched sub-two-minute power show in 1995.

No, what was extraordinary about being around Bailey last week was the sense of fulfilment about both the rider and the man. New York may be a place riddled with anthrax and `ground zero’ uncertainties, but here was someone in control. The disciplines may be limited; handling racehorses on the track, supporting wife Suzee and son Justin off it, speaking out for himself and his fellow riders whenever asked. But the understanding of his profession and of people is as unique as it is complete.

In the six years since Cigar rocketed to immortality in what was a fourth Breeders’ Cup Classic in five years for his rider, Bailey has done that most difficult of tricks: using ultimate success to hone his talent, not blunt it. Once again head of the New York list and an impressive $8 million clear of his nearest rival in the nationwide title, here is a man who brooks no argument as to who should be No 1.

“But you have got to remember,” he said sitting in the jockeys’ room on Thursday, “that I had a very mediocre start to my career.” At first breath this seems a harsh judgment from the El Paso dentist’s son, who won on his first ever ride at the localSunland Park in 1974, who took apprentice titles at the admittedly outland tracks of Ak Sar Ben and Albuquerque, who headed the list in Florida in ’77 and ’78 before moving to New York and a top-10 position in 1982.

Yet the quickness of the voice and the resoluteness of the eyes beneath the thinning dome of the head speaks of an impatience with anything short of excellence. “I was mired in mediocrity,” he says with a laugh, “and, of course, I was a drinker. “In 1989, I was getting nowhere, my marriage was going to fail. So I quit drinking. Put a sharper focus on my game, worked hard, waited my turn, and finally my time did come.”

And with a vengeance. He broke through in 1991 with his first Triple Crown race and the first of his 11 Breeders’ Cup victories. Two years later he won his first Kentucky Derby and, 1995’s unbeaten 10-race streak on Cigar was crowned with the first of his four Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding jockey, something that again looks a certainty this time.

Reformed boozers are not entirely unknown in the sporting spectrum. Bailey has come to terms with a bit more than that. In 1992, after years of difficult testing and fertility treatment, his wife, the actress and producer Suzee Chelwick, became pregnant and not a day since Justin’s birth has passed without Bailey giving thanks for his blessings, and striving earnestly to make more of them.

“I can be hot-tempered,” he says. “If I make a mistake I get mad at myself. I want to make everything very professional. It can be hard on the people around me, and I will be a bit difficult to live with during the last few days before the Breeders’ Cup. The Kentucky Derby is a huge occasion but it is largely for one race. The Breeders’ Cup gives us seven championship races one after the other. It can be very draining.”

He says the pick of his rides are the Newmarket-trained filly Lailani in the Filly and Mare Turf and the sensational Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Aptitude against Galileo and Fantastic Light in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “He has been much more aggressive since they put blinkers on him,” says Bailey. “The European horses are obviously very good but the dirt can be difficult and my main worry about Aptitude is that last time he was almost too good to be true.”

Five per cent of the Bailey winnings will be sent to local charities for victims of the World Trade Centre. He believes strongly in the need for national renewal after the September 11th disaster and the crispness of the conversation reminds you of local trainer Nick Zito’s verdict “of all the jockeys I have seen, he is without question the most intelligent”.

“No, I didn’t really love horses,” says Bailey, explaining his motivations. “My father did but I worked at the local track during school days just as a way of making money. And as for race riding, (which started on quarter horses at 12-years-old) that was the thrill of competition. I loved sports, but I was too short for basketball, too small for football and too slow for track. Here was something I could do.”

He could also read and write. He graduated from high school before going into full-time racing and then at his teacher mother’s dying request returned to enrol in the University of Texas to major in accounting. He did a full semester but the lure of the competition was too strong.

Out in the autumn tints of the Belmont paddock it was beckoning now. Reduit is a chunky colt whose bright chestnut coat is as red as any conker. Last time out, Bailey had just failed on him when getting trapped along the rail. He makes mistakes but does not like making the same ones twice. “You know what to do,” trainer Tommy Skiffington said.

At 5ft 5in and 8st 4lb, Bailey is not over-large even by jockey standards, but there is something imposing about him in the saddle, the body upright, the leathers “acey deucey”, right leg three holes shorter than the left to balance better on the turns. Not deadly and challenging like Piggott or Cordero. Not miniature genius like Shoemaker or Saint-Martin. But a precision and a poise almost too immaculate for the violent excitements that come when the goggles are pulled down and the sods begin to fly.

There are 11 runners and a full circuit of the Belmont turf track around which Lester Piggott won so remarkably on Royal Academy back in 1989. After half a furlong, Bailey had Reduit plum last but something about the low-slung angle of the back told you that the clock inside the helmet was ticking.

Coming to the turn he was on the move but there were still seven ahead of him. No panic but a sense of clamped in urgency pouring from man to horse. Into the straight and Reduit is angled out for his finishing drive. The whip comes up for one brief crack in the right, switches across to three quick slashes on the left. Reduit is on the run now, just one to beat. He gets upside. The whip comes through to the right hand for one final smack to make sure. There is a good length in it at the post.

“It was a master class,” says trainer Skiffington, no dunce in his cavalier days when men were men, fences were fences, and the greatest challenges came after dark. Three large Long Island punters lean over the rail and shout “Jerry, you’re the best” just as they had maligned his sexual prowess and all the rest when he got beat in the race before.

Bailey gives his seraphic winner’s smile and moves in his quickfire shuffle back to the weighing room. You remember his favourite saying: “I am not happy because I am successful. I am a success because I am happy.” Such success is hard to beat.

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