By their late fifties, most guys are slowing down. The job has become a grind. Walking 18 holes is more like work than play. Trying to get rid of those extra 10 pounds is a losing battle, and retirement isn’t that far off.
Then there’s Jon Court. At 58, after 39 years and 4,148 wins, he’s still rising before the sun to work the backstretch for live mounts. Court embodies the saying that age is a state of mind, and Saturday he’ll get on longshot Long Range Toddy and become the oldest jockey in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby.
That’s a much bigger deal to everybody else than it is to Court. He’s never been a star, but inevitably he’s become a curiosity and a sentimental favorite this week. He likes the attention, but being called ageless is getting old.
“Yeah, I’ve come across this subject matter a lot,” Court said. “The age thing gets a little redundant. I may be 58, but I’m not the 58 everybody else seems to be. I love riding, and I’m still good at it. I’m taking care of myself, and I’ve been very blessed that I can still compete at this level and win with top-caliber horses.
“So, it’s awesome. As long as it feels good and I’m doing well, I’ll keep going.”
As dedicated as he is to his career, Court is anything but one-dimensional. Last year he took time off to study real estate, and he loves to read. He gives back to racing as vice president of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund. ESPN called him “unfailingly polite,” and in 2007 his peers voted him the prestigious George Woolf Award, given to a rider who demonstrates high standards of professional conduct, on and off the track.
He’s a dedicated mentor, too.
“He’s an elder statesman, and he’s great in the jocks’ room helping out the younger guys,” retired Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens said.
Court diets and exercises religiously, but wrangling wired, 1,200-pound beasts isn’t his only high-risk activity. He skis on snow and water and rides motorcycles. Last summer he fractured his collarbone when his “steel horse” skidded. Surgery required a steel plate and seven screws.
“I want to put him in bubble wrap on the days there’s no racing,” his agent, Steve Krajcir, said.
Court will break the Derby record of Bobby Baird, who at 57 rode Raymond Earl to a 10th-place finish in 1978. His Derby finale was far from his most memorable experience. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Baird landed at Omaha Beach with Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army during the Normandy invasion.
Court’s war stories involve being “jocked off” horses he rode before the Derby. On the plus side – for Court anyway – at least none of them earned racing’s most coveted trophy.
“First Derby horse I was taken off? Oh heck, I put that stuff out of my mind,” he said. “I’ve had many horses roll into the Kentucky Derby and had another rider on them, for whatever reasons. It was painful the first time or two it happened, but I’m seasoned enough to know that it’s part of the game.”
In 2010, Court won the Arkansas Derby on Line of David but was replaced by Rafael Bejarano, who finished 18th on Derby Day. The next year, Court repeated in the Arkansas Derby with Archarcharch, trained by his father-in-law, Jinks Fires. (Family ties undoubtedly helped, but karma owed Court big-time.) His Derby debut at 50 was bittersweet, though: Archarcharch finished 15th and suffered a career-ending ankle injury.
Court’s other Derby mounts were Optimizer (11th, 2012) and Will Take Charge (eighth, 2013), with the latter belonging to Willis Horton, Long Range Toddy’s owner. Horton and trainer Steve Asmussen admired Court’s well-timed rally in the Rebel Stakes on Long Range Toddy as he upset Bob Baffert’s Improbable by a neck. They were sixth on a wet track in the Arkansas Derby, but the connections stuck with Court.
Bill Shoemaker, the oldest Derby-winning rider, was 54 in 1986 when he scored on Ferdinand. For Court to outdo Shoemaker, Long Range Toddy must improve dramatically. Logic says no, but strange things happen on the first Saturday in May.
Old guys excelled in recent classics. Stevens was 50 when he stole the 2013 Preakness on Oxbow. Mike Smith was 52 when he swept last year’s Triple Crown with Justify.
“I believe Long Range Toddy’s bloodlines indicate he can go farther,” Court said. “He has the talent to be running at this level."
Stevens thinks Court belongs, too.
“He’s one of the best-kept secrets in racing,” Stevens said. “You can’t tell he’s 58. He’s a consummate professional, and he’s finally getting a shot in the spotlight.”
Notes & quotes: Long Range Toddy breezed 4 furlongs in 47.80 seconds Monday morning in his final Derby workout. Asmussen, who is second all-time with 8,409 victories, is 0-for-19 in the Derby ... California shipper Bellafina is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Friday’s 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks, the 3-year-old fillies’ Derby. Flavien Plat will ride. A field of 14 was entered, along with two also-eligibles. Champagne Anyone is the 6-1 second favorite, with last season’s 2-year-old filly champion, Jaywalk, at 8-1.