Out of the pack, into the spotlight Derby victory gives Bailey new status among jockeys

May 09, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

Elmont, N.Y. -- As he emerged from the paddock and rode onto the track before the third race at Belmont Park on Thursday afternoon, some of the regulars zeroed in on jockey Jerry Bailey.

"Hey, superstar," one of them called out.

"Nice Derby, but win this one for me," said another.

It was friendly razzing, but it sort of summed up Bailey's new status in the horse-racing world. The spotlight has suddenly focused on the dentist's son from El Paso.

Long considered one of the country's top riders -- well-respected, well-liked and certainly well-paid -- Bailey saw his 18-year career validated a week ago yesterday. In the span of a little more than two minutes at Churchill Downs, Bailey went from solid journeyman to potential Hall of Famer.

"It fulfilled my career," Bailey, 35, said of his victory on Sea Hero, a 12-1 long shot. "Any jockey would have to say that. At the same time, I could have gone on and felt good about my career without winning it. Jerry Bailey would have grown old, lost his hair. But it's very nice to have done it."

It was similar to Tom Kite winning his first major golf tournament, the United States Open, last year at Pebble Beach. Or race-car driver Danny Sullivan winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1985. They had been considered successful in their sports, but those victories put them on another level.

The same thing apparently has happened to Bailey, whose best Derby finish was fourth in 1988 on Proper Reality. Although he won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes on Hansel two years ago and although he has won nearly 3,000 races and nearly $80 million in purses, Bailey finds himself in the blurring swirl of new-found national celebrity going into the 118th Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico.

It is a position he has managed to elude for most of his career.

"I've chosen not to be in the quote-unquote limelight as much as some others," said Bailey, sitting in the jockey's cafeteria at Belmont. "I don't need that. When I first got into the game, it was deeply burned into my mind by my father -- think about the future. Like any athlete, you're not going to be in the game forever. I've tried to keep everything outside the white fences as conservative as I could."

It meant starting his career in the comfortable obscurity of Sunland Park, a little track across the state line in New Mexico. It meant avoiding the bright lights and fast lifestyle of Manhattan when he first came here from Miami 11 years ago. It meant settling down as a quiet suburbanite on Long Island with his wife, Suzee, a former actress and sports reporter for SportsChannel.

While other jockeys who had greater success early, or merely more vices, have either burned out or are on their second and third comebacks, Bailey has steadily been a go-to guy for some of the country's top trainers for most of the past decade. He has had his share of injuries -- the most serious came after a spill at Belmont in 1985, when he broke three vertebrae, three bones in his foot and some ribs -- but has remained fairly healthy for the past seven years.

When talking to others in the business, you hear the same things over and over again about Bailey: dependable, flexible, smart.

"He gets his horse in position to win and keeps him out of trouble," said trainer Frank Brothers, who brought Bailey in to ride Hansel after Randy Romero broke his wrist. "It sounds boring, but it's hard to do. If things aren't going well, he'll make adjustments. He's kind of got ice water in his veins."

Said Mack Miller, the 71-year-old trainer of Sea Hero, who has worked with Bailey for the past eight years: "He's made a gradual progression over the years, like a good doctor or a good lawyer or like anyone else who gets to the top of their profession. He's out here every day at 6 in the morning, with his horses. A lot of jockeys who get fat or rich will sleep until 10. They're the ones who fall by the wayside. Jerry's got a great desire to rank among the best jockeys in the world."

Not in his blood

This isn't a story about a kid who grew up in the bluegrass of Kentucky, in the shadow of the twin spires, riding horses like most ride bikes. James Bailey can remember taking the family horseback riding, but it was his two daughters who were more interested than his only son. Today, one daughter is a nurse and the other is a hospital administrator.

"He'd rather be off shooting basketballs," recalled the elder Bailey, who had a successful children's dental practice. "If he did it [ride horses], it was something to do with the family."

He also wanted to earn some spending money, so the younger Bailey began walking hots and sweeping stalls at Sunland, where his father raced some quarter horses and thoroughbreds. At age 12, he started riding quarter horses in match races there and at the state fair in Albuquerque. ("That's where I learned to get out of the gate fast," he said.)

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