The Five Percent

by Jude Feld (reprinted with permission of our friends at Horse Racing Radio Network)

Jude Feld, handicapper and bloggerA lot of talk during the weeks leading up to the 2012 Belmont Stakes (G1) centered on jockey switches. Two of the main contenders, Union Rags and Dullahan, who on race day would be the top two odds choices when I’ll Have Another scratched, were both changing riders.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was being replaced on Dullahan after a bad breathalyzer test weeks earlier upset his connections.

Union Rags probably should have won the Florida Derby (G1) but was never given the chance by jockey Julien Leparoux. After another troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby (G1), he was sent packing in favor of Hall of Fame elect John Velazquez.

The switch to Velazquez proved positive for Union Rags with a huge and trouble-free victory, while Dullahan was so unthreatening, he obviously wasn’t going to win, even if the great Isaac Murphy rose from the dead to ride him.

Jockey switches in major races always draw headlines, but what about your average race – a maiden claimer on a Thursday or an allowance race on Friday afternoon?

There are three types of jockey switches the handicapper should pay attention to in every race on the card.

Switching to a top rider.

This is basically a no-brainer, and therefore most noticed by the general public, usually making the odds drop. It is a very positive indicator however.

Owners and trainers need rank and file jocks to ride their horses as they learn the racing game or get ready for winning efforts coming off a layoff, but when the horse is ready to win, they often tip their hand by hiring a top five rider. It happens every day, some days many times. It is not a guarantee of success at the windows but it is a solid indication of trainer intent.

Switching to a rider who has won with the horse before.

This switch is a lot more subtle and can be responsible for some excellent prices. Because many fans use a track program for their handicapping, it is more easily spotted by players with a full set of past performance charts.

I claimed a horse named Slay the Dragon when I first started training. He hadn’t won a race in three years. I had cashed a ticket on him in his last win and Fernando Toro had ridden him that day. He got fit and happy while I had him and after a nice gate work, he was ready to enter. I had to really make a case to Toro’s agent, Chick McClellan, to give me the call, but he did in the end and it worked out perfectly. Slay the Dragon was an easy winner.

Some riders have a knack with certain horses, some horses prefer certain riders. It might be something subtle like the pressure of the bit in their mouth or how the rider holds the reins that matters to a horse or it can be a matter of riding style that causes horse and rider to gel.

The great John H. M Gosden trained a horse many years ago who had a breathing problem. Jockey Terry Lipham knew this and found a way to ride him that allowed the horse to breathe better. He was one of the greatest betting tools ever. Without Lipham he ran horribly. With Lipham, he was near stakes caliber.

Top rider jumps ship.

This can be a big negative. Top jockeys usually have top agents and the two are usually in constant contact with each other. Every mount is discussed post race and even if the conversation is brief, it is important. Riders know which horses they like, who they think has potential and who they wish to avoid in the future.

It helps to know the rider’s regular client base because sometimes jockeys are first call jockeys of a particular stable and may be forced to ride a lesser horse because of their commitments, but all things being equal, if a top five rider gets off of a horse it is not a good sign. It is even more glaring if he sits the race out.

It’s been said that Thoroughbred horse racing is 95% horse and 5% jockey, and in handicapping players should concentrate the bulk of their attention on the horse’s form. But there are instances when noticing a jockey switch can mean adding hundreds of dollars to your bottom line and that’s what horseplaying is all about.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is an 18-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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