- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The lure of the Kentucky Derby is keeping jockey Jerry Bailey from retirement.

The Hall of Fame rider was ready to quit last year before the late withdrawal of his horse prevented one final Derby ride, but Bailey returns with contender High Fly for tomorrow’s 131st running. Maybe a third Derby crown will induce the 47-year-old rider to quit, though he no longer knows when he’ll stop.

“I was really, really close last November to retiring. I really was,” Bailey said. “I had been through a lot last year. I was tired. It’s probably the wrong time to decide it. That’s why I decided to wait. It’s like going to the grocery store hungry — it’s a bad thing to do. So I waited four or five weeks. I freshened up and I felt that I really wanted to ride another year. I thought I had good horses to ride. That’s the same approach I will take this year.

Bailey signed his autobiography “Against the Odds: Riding For My Life” for a long line of fans in the grandstand yesterday. He ranks among his generation’s best with 5,719 victories worth $277.4million and seven Eclipse Awards. The former quarterhorse jockey was immortalized by riding horses of the year Cigar and Skip Away and earning victories at six Triple Crown races. Derby victories aboard Sea Hero (1993) and Grindstone (1996) endeared him to locals though he spent most of his career in New York and Florida.

But fans are only now learning through his book that Bailey’s career was nearly lost to alcoholism. Drinking was part of the racetrack culture when Bailey started in 1974. He didn’t stop until 1988, when he realized his marriage and career were in jeopardy.

“When I got sober, they asked me, ‘Are you willing to do anything not to take a drink?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’” Bailey said. “And I think that’s the way you have to approach life. If you’re willing to do anything to succeed in life … and do whatever it takes and sacrifice as much as you have to, then you will.”

Bailey said young riders are more health-conscious while older jockeys have become mentors instead of competitors in the locker room. Drinking is no longer a heavy part of the riding culture.

“I think it’s changing for the better,” he said. “I think the jockeys coming up have a better role model in front of them. Hopefully, Pat Day, myself, a few of the other guys would be good examples for them. I think it’s more of a business now. There’s a lot of money to be made now.”

‘Smarty’ spectator

Trainer John Servis’ chance for consecutive Derby winners ended with an injury to Rockport Harbor, but Smarty Jones’ conditioner is vacationing at Churchill Downs anyway.

“Last year was a blur,” he said. “This year we’ll go to the races for a few days and have some fun.”

Servis visited Smarty Jones at Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, Ky., where the latter is now a stallion. The colt responded with a long romp around the paddock.

“He put on quite a show — it was like watching fireworks,” Servis said. “He bucked and played. He ran by me and there were 10 of us standing there and I’m the only one who got [hit by] dirt. My wife said, ‘He’s just giving you a piece of his new home to take back with you.’ ”

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