In a year when his career has taken off, Tyler Gaffalione was saluted for just staying in the saddle.
Entering the muddy stretch of the Kentucky Derby, he managed to stay on War of Will and keep him from going down after pacesetter Maximum Security veered in front of them. For two scary strides, War of Will’s forelegs were inside Maximum Security’s hind legs. If they had clipped heels and fallen, it probably would have created a disastrous chain reaction behind them and a catastrophe for horse racing.
Many said the athleticism of Gaffalione and his agile mount might have saved the sport. He smiled at the notion.
“No, I never thought that,” he said. “I’m just happy we came back safely and that nobody got hurt. The Derby was a great experience. I learned a lot mentally and physically. I was grateful for all the support I got from people after the race.”
Two weeks later, Gaffalione worked out a perfect trip along a golden rail and won the Preakness on War of Will, who ran ninth in the Belmont Stakes. “At the Preakness, it all happened for us that day,” he said. “The Belmont also was a great experience, but it wasn’t our day. I’m not sure if it was the mile and a half or the three Triple Crown races, but it was a lot to ask of him.”
Ten days after the Belmont, Gaffalione was in England, riding for trainer Wesley Ward at Royal Ascot. In his debut, he was thrown into the deep end amid a downpour. Rain came down in sheets, turning the manicured turf into a bog. Gaffalione, 24, has ridden more than 6,600 races, but never one like this. Anna’s Fast lived up to her name early but faded to 16th in the Queen Mary Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
“It was a lot of fun,” Gaffalione told Newsday outside Ascot’s jockeys’ room. “It was really soft, really wet. It was different than any race I’ve ever been in -- a straight five furlongs and 25 horses. My horse traveled really well and then she started slipping.”
He went 0-for-3 at Ascot, also finishing 15th and 13th. Winning would have been glorious, but just being there was a personal milestone.
“I told people I was going to Royal Ascot, and they said, ‘No way,’ ’’ he said. “When you get out there on the course, it’s not any different. But then after the race you get back and see all the people, and it’s so impressive. I got to see the Queen today. Incredible.”
Nobody does pomp and pageantry like the Brits, and the 209-year-old royal meeting is the pinnacle, by far the world’s greatest show on turf. Royal Ascot’s slogan is “Like Nowhere Else,” and it makes our Derby look like a country picnic.
“There’s nothing like this in the States,” NBC reporter Britney Eurton said. “The pageantry, the passion, the fashion — it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”
NBC racing analyst Eddie Olczyk, who played for the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers, also was dazzled. “Everything is pristine, and everybody gets all dressed up,” he said. “It’s a very classy five days.”
Gaffalione was there all week, which gave him time to reflect on his breakthrough year. When told he’s considered a rising star, he said, “I don’t really think about that. I’m just taking it day to day.
“After Gulfstream and Keeneland I went from the Derby to the Preakness to the Belmont. I’ve really been enjoying everything, just taking things in stride. Living the dream, and I have to thank my agent, Matt Muzikar, for putting me on so many good horses.”
Gaffalione is based at Saratoga for the first time, and he’s already made a splash by winning three stakes at North America’s best meeting. “Just walking around here, you can feel the history,” he said. “It’s a tough jockey colony. Lots of great riders, and to compete with them, you have to match their ability.”
Ward never doubted that he would. “If Tyler Gaffalione was a stock, I would want to buy in,” Ward said, “because he’s heading up. He’s a great young rider trying to get better every day.”
Like Ward in 1984, the 5-3, 112-pound Gaffalione was the nation’s top apprentice in 2015. He was born into the sport, the son and grandson of jockeys. His late grandfather, Bobby Gaffalione, rode in the 1984 Kentucky Derby, and his father, Steve, had 827 winners in a 21-year career.
Tyler got his first pony at 4 and as a teenager he exercised horses before school. “My dad shared a lot of his experiences with me,’’ he said. “Growing up with horses on a farm in Florida, I guess it was just the right place, right time for me. Almost like it was meant to be.”