Unless they're lucky enough to land on a major thoroughbred, exercise riders are anonymous. Yet the men and women who toil in jeans and muddy boots at sunrise play important roles for trainers, as scouts did for generals before technology changed war. A trainer wants to know what's happening out there with his horses, and he has to rely on what his informants tell him.
Last spring, Shug McGaughey praised Jennifer Patterson for her morning efforts that helped develop Orb into a Kentucky Derby winner. This year, Willie Delgado is doing that for Triple Crown contender California Chrome.
"I'm so grateful I got on this horse," said Delgado, who had spent 30 years on the racetrack without making his mark. "I thank the trainer [Art Sherman] and owners every day for letting me be part of this amazing dream. A lot of people have been on the track a lot longer than I have and never got this opportunity."
Delgado, 46, is the brother of Alberto Delgado, 49, the 1982 champion apprentice. Unlike Alberto, who was second in the 1995 Preakness and has 2,823 wins, Willie never made it as a rider, going 0-for-45. Training didn't pan out, either, with only six winners out of 116 starters from 2009-13. But he never lacked clients as an exercise rider, and that's where he finally has earned widespread acclaim.
After the Kentucky Derby, Delgado was euphoric for days. "Friends ask, 'How does it feel?' '' he said. "I say, 'I'll tell you what, when my daughter was born, I'd say it was a dead heat.' "
Alberto Delgado rides in Southern California, and last summer Willie visited. He enjoyed the scene, so he dispersed his struggling stable in Maryland and resettled. "The only bad thing was I had to leave behind my daughter," he said.
Savannah, 6, lives with her mother in Maryland. Willie and his little girl had a glorious reunion at Pimlico, but saying goodbye was so wrenching he's not sure he wants her at the Belmont Stakes.
Alberto had told Willie about "this fast 2-year-old," and Alberto won twice on California Chrome. When his exercise rider went on vacation, Willie took over. "I got lucky," he said. "Ta-da!"
Then Alberto got unlucky. After two consecutive sixth-place finishes, Sherman replaced him with Victor Espinoza, and they're 6-for-6.
"The jock who was on him before wasn't riding enough," Sherman said. Alberto is only 4-for-53 this year, so although disappointed, he understood.
"That's horse racing," Willie Delgado said. "Alberto came up to me after the Preakness and said, 'You're doing a good job, little brother.' At least one of us was able to get here. If we can win the Triple Crown, he'll enjoy it with me."