He's a Kentucky Derby neophyte with the weight of the racing world on his shoulders, yet Kevin Krigger is not lacking for confidence. Far from it. Krigger is firm in his belief that he's the right man at the right time, to both win the Kentucky Derby in his first attempt and return a black jockey to the Derby winner's circle for the first time in more than a century.
Krigger will ride one of the favorites, the speedy Goldencents, on Saturday for Doug O'Neill. The trainer has been around the block – he won the Kentucky Derby last year with I'll Have Another – but Krigger, a 29-year-old from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, only recently has carved out a niche at racing's highest levels. He scored his first Grade 1 victory just last month, when Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby.
When asked Thursday what it was like for a jockey to come out of “nowhere” to land a ride in the Derby, Krigger stopped the questioner in his tracks.
“I wouldn't say nowhere,” Krigger said. “I've always chased the dream; I've never given up on it.”
When asked Thursday what it was like for a jockey to come out of “nowhere” to land a ride in the Derby, Krigger stopped the questioner in his tracks. “I wouldn't say nowhere,” Krigger said. “I've always chased the dream; I've never given up on it.”
Krigger has been around horses since age 5, began pursuing a riding career in his teens and came to the United States at 17. After riding his first official race at Thistledown in Ohio in 2001, he moved to the West Coast, shuttling between Emerald Downs near Seattle and Golden Gate Fields, where he had a terrific year in 2011. Krigger then made the leap to the very tough Southern California circuit, arriving at Santa Anita in December 2011. He's been there ever since.
Krigger finished ninth in the jockey standings at the most recent Santa Anita meeting, impressing O'Neill and others with his patient riding style, uncanny sense of pace and supreme self-confidence.
“I use the word 'unorthodox' rider,” Krigger said by way of self-definition, “because anywhere you put me in a race, any track you put me on, whether it's grass, whether it's dirt, whether it's synthetic, whether its Belmont, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, on a bullring, anyplace you put me, I'm effective on a horse that wants to win.”
Can Goldencents be that kind of horse? Krigger, naturally, is enthused. He and O'Neill have a game plan, but only to a point.
“We'll be forwardly placed,” Krigger said. “I don't know how the other jockeys are going to ride their horses, so I'm not dictating my race … I'm not going to say exactly where I'm going to be. I'm going to ride a race that gets us into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.”
That might be a realistic assessment. Goldencents has a quick burst of early speed and a favorable post position, all of which should allow him to avoid a traffic jam in the early stages of the race. When he won the Santa Anita Derby, Goldencents attended a fast pace, took over turning for home and held off favored Flashback to win by more than a length. That was at a mile and one eighth, while the Derby is a mile and a quarter. Krigger said he thinks Goldencents can run all day.
“I told him, Glenn, if you want to race this horse on the 405 – one of the freeways in L.A. – just find a horse that wants to race against him. No matter what you run him on, he's going to give us his best.”
When he gets a leg up on Goldencents, Krigger will carry the flag for an ownership group that includes Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino, and Southern Californians Dave Kenney, Josh Kaplan and Glenn Sorgenstein. Kaplan and Sorgenstein specialize in the sale of rare coins, hence the name Goldencents. To capture the Derby's large coin – $1,439,800 is the winner's share – Goldencents may have to navigate a wet racetrack, with rain in the forecast for Saturday.
No problem, Krigger said, recounting a conversation earlier this year with Sorgenstein.
“I told him, Glenn, if you want to race this horse on the 405 – one of the freeways in L.A. – just find a horse that wants to race against him. No matter what you run him on, he's going to give us his best effort – slop, mud, fast, deep, dry, cuppy, whatever kind of track you put him on, he's going to bring his best.”
Krigger has been made keenly aware of the history of black jockeys in the Derby. After Jimmy Winkfield steered Alan-a-Dale to victory in 1902, the door slammed shut and remained locked for decades. In the 111 years since Winkfield's victory, only one other black jockey has competed in the Derby – Marlon St. Julien finished seventh aboard Curule in 2000.
As a nod to that history, and the task at hand Saturday, Krigger keeps a photo of Winkfield in his locker. He brought it along to Churchill Downs, a good-luck charm for a race that often brings luck into play.
“When I saw the picture, I was proud to see him, the look in his eyes,” Krigger said. “He was telling me, 'You're going to do it.' I looked at the picture and I didn't want to let it go.”