LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For a few minutes, Kevin Krigger was afraid he'd blown it. Nobody else had ever ridden Goldencents, but after they got cooked in a speed duel and finished fourth March 9 in the San Felipe Stakes, he thought he might have lost the mount.
"The most I was worried was from the finish line through the gallop-out," Krigger said. "I went over the race in my mind and I was feeling like these guys might be thinking about changing me."
Then good vibes popped into his head. "I've been around [trainer] Doug O'Neill and the owners for a year, and they've been very supportive, so I was pretty sure they weren't going to point the finger at me. I felt like they were going to give me a chance to redeem myself."
A month later, Goldencents produced a career-best 105 Beyer speed figure in taking the Santa Anita Derby, and he'll give Krigger a chance to make history Saturday in the Kentucky Derby. It's been 111 years since an African-American jockey won it, and the Virgin Islands native will be only the second in 92 years to get the opportunity. In 2000, Marlon St. Julien finished seventh on Curule.
Like St. Julien 13 years ago, Krigger, 29, sees himself as a jockey who happens to be black, not a crusader. African-Americans won 15 of the first 28 Derbys from 1875-1902 before racism began phasing them out. Krigger knows his history, that "the first jockeys were slaves" of plantation owners before the Civil War. "But it's a totally different time," he said. "I used to watch the Kentucky Derby as a kid and told myself that's where I wanted to be someday. I'm just very fortunate to be where I am."
O'Neill could become the first trainer to take consecutive Derbys since Bob Baffert in 1998. "With I'll Have Another, we were all fired up after winning the Santa Anita Derby," O'Neill said, "but we really still thought that winning the Kentucky Derby was so far-fetched. But I think having got it done, this year's dream seems more real, like we possibly could do it back to back."
I'll Have Another's Triple Crown bid with Mario Gutierrez ended when he was scratched because of a tendon injury the day before the Belmont Stakes. Like him, Goldencents comes to Churchill Downs with a low-profile rider. The connection stems from O'Neill's friendship with Krigger's agent, Tom Knust. Krigger's success at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco impressed O'Neill, and one thing led to another. After Krigger worked out Goldencents last July, six weeks before a 7 1/4-length runaway in his debut, O'Neill said, "He got off him and in his best Virgin Islands accent said, 'Wow, mon, this horse can really run.' "
Goldencents was 2-for-3 last year, including a strong second to 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in his second start, the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park. Then he took the $1-million Delta Jackpot before cruising Jan. 5 in Santa Anita's Sham Stakes. The big colt has a high cruising speed and stamina, and O'Neill likes the "great chemistry" with Krigger.
"Kevin has got ice running through his veins," O'Neill said. "He's got that 'Let's bring it on' rather than being in awe of the whole thing, even though it is a pretty amazing historical fact that no African-American has won the Derby since 1902. So I think it's time to have it happen again. Jimmy Winkfield was the rider, and the trainer was an Irish guy named Thomas McDowell. So come Saturday, Kevin's going to be playing Winkfield and I'll be playing McDowell."