Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: 'Invisible Jockey' J.J. Delgado A Key To Mage's Kentucky Derby Success - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: ‘Invisible Jockey’ J.J. Delgado A Key To Mage’s Kentucky Derby Success

J.J. Delgado guiding Mage through pre-Kentucky Derby training

Jockeys often volunteer to take their Kentucky Derby mounts through the last workout or two leading to the big day. They understand how vital those drills can be, and they want to do everything possible to ensure that their horses are as ready as can be.

Javier Castellano, winless with his first 15 Derby starters, desperately wanted to reverse his fortunes. He phoned trainer Gustavo Delgado and offered to fly from his New York base to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., to put Mage through his final work a week ahead of the Derby.

Delgado appreciated Castellano's willingness to do that. But he declined, saying he would stick with exercise rider Jose Javier (J.J.) Delgado for that all-important task.

“J.J. knows the horse so well. I don't want to change anything,” the trainer told Castellano. “I want to stay with my guy.”

Castellano said he “absolutely” understood that answer, especially since Mage went on to end the Hall of Fame rider's Derby drought by springing a 15-1 upset in only his fourth career start.

The response said everything about the trust that Delgado the rider has earned from Delgado the trainer. When J.J. was a jockey, he piloted one of Delgado's Triple Crown winners in Venezuela. When the trainer moved to the United States, he knew exactly where to turn for a top exercise rider since J.J. had retired as a jockey.

The strength of the decades-long relationship the two men enjoy is rare.

“He never uses jockeys to breeze horses. He uses me always,” Delgado said proudly. He described exercise riders as “invisible jockeys” because they so rarely receive any attention.

In the case of J.J., 60, it is almost as if he can read the trainer's mind. “They've been working together for so long, he doesn't give many instructions for what we are trying to accomplish,” said Gustavo Delgado Jr., who assists his father.

J.J. is a perfect fit for the Delgado operation, which conducts itself differently from most United States outfits with its emphasis on long works to prepare young horses for classic distances. Mage, purchased as a 2-year-old in training, went unraced last season to give him time to mature. Of the Good Magic colt's final five pre-Derby works, three were at six furlongs and two covered five furlongs.

On April 22, J.J. and Mage traveled six furlongs in 1:14.78 at the 3-year-old's home base of Gulfstream Park in South Florida. A week later, the same move went in 1:16.80 at Churchill Downs. According to Delgado Jr., J.J. was the perfect passenger each time because his father's emphasis was on building stamina. He was not concerned about speed, certain that was there whenever needed.

“He's very good at teaching them how to rate,” Delgado Jr. said of J.J.

J.J. Delgado, aboard Mage in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby

According to J.J., Mage was a nervous baby when he first arrived at the Delgado's barn at Gulfstream Park. All of the on-track activity during training hours was disconcerting. He required extensive schooling at the starting gate.

“We spend the time with him,” J.J. said. “He is a smart horse. He learned a lot.”

Mage did not debut until Jan. 28, when he easily won a seven-furlong contest at Gulfstream Park. With Castellano aboard for the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream, the youngster showed how much he was a work in progress. He struck the gate at the break, then ran unevenly.

Castellano now raves about how far the horse has come and the job that J.J., in particular, has done. “Everything is important, all the elements,” he said. “The exercise rider is most important. He gets on the horse every single day. He knows that horse so well. He can tell you if the horse is making progress.”

J.J. knows what it takes to win the Derby, having played a role in Big Brown's success in 2008. When he huddled with Castellano before this year's edition, he told him the colt had made dramatic strides since his erratic effort in the Fountain of Youth.

“I said, 'Don't worry about that race. The horse is very different here in Kentucky. The horse is happy, strong,'” J.J. related. “'The horse is ready to win.'”

Mage had shown dramatic improvement when he placed second by a length to Forte in the April 1 Florida Derby with Luis Saez aboard. J.J. believes the significantly brisker weather in Kentucky may have helped the sophomore take his game to an even higher level.

J.J. likes what he is seeing and feeling so far as Mage prepares for the Preakness on Saturday at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. He is excited about the chances for an encore.

“If he's the same horse, no problem at all,” he said, appreciating how far Mage has come.

Tom Pedulla, 2022 recipient of the Walter Haight Award from the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

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