Story originally published on April 25, 2013, on DanonymousRacing.com
For twenty-minutes, we talked. Kevin Krigger sounded supremely confident and then, just in case I hadn’t detected it in his tone, he made his thoughts plain.
“It is what it is,” Krigger told DanonymousRacing.com. “I am going to be the first African-American jockey since 1902 to win the Kentucky Derby… So, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Where did that come from? How could this 29-year-old jockey, who most casual race fans hadn’t even heard of until recently, be so sure he was going to win the Kentucky Derby?
Krigger explained that his bold words are as much a reflection of his belief in himself, as they are in the horse he’ll be riding in Louisville: Goldencents.
“We are going to win the race. I have no doubt about that,” Krigger said. “If you were riding Goldencents, you’d feel the same way too because you’d know what you had under you.”
As we spoke last week, just days before the end of the Santa Anita Fall meet, I reminded Krigger that things could’ve turned out differently.
In January, exactly two weeks after riding Goldencents to victory in the Sham Stakes, Krigger went down in a gruesome spill. Krigger and the horse he was riding that day, Ricspretentiousgal, clipped heels with a filly named Indecise, ridden by Garrett Gomez. About the same time that Indecise and Gomez were disqualified for causing the spill, Krigger was being loaded into an ambulance.
Even though Krigger was briefly unconscious, he managed to escape without serious injury. For Krigger, who had previously fractured his neck and shattered three vertebrae while riding, the January spill hardly made him stop for a moment of reflection.
“Quite frankly, I live a fearless life,” said Krigger. “It’s a bit more of my demeanor to not let something like that scare me.”
That attitude is one of several elements of Krigger’s dynamic personality that immediately caught the eye of Doug O’Neill, trainer of Goldencents.
“Kevin is just an ice-veined, tough kid,” O’Neill told us. “He’s not going to let one negative incident weaken him and I think that’s a huge credit to the way he programmed himself and the people who were around him as a kid.”
Born and raised in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Krigger remembers having an affinity for horses from a very young age. In his early teens, he transitioned from riding horses in his backyard to riding on the beach, according to Krigger “anywhere I could find a match race.”
Krigger won his very first race in the Virgin Islands, but even then he had his eyes set on a bigger pond. So, at 17, Krigger set off to Ohio and began riding as an apprentice at Thistledown Racetrack. He experienced success there and at every stop along the way, including Golden Gate Fields, his last stop before moving his tack down to Southern California. There, Krigger’s agent, Tom Knust, reached out to his good friend, Doug O’Neill.
“(Tom) brought Kevin by and we got to know him,” said O’Neill. “Saw his work ethic and horsemanship, the way horses ran for him, and we got to like him right away.”
There is no doubt that O’Neill saw the same intangibles or je ne sai quoi in Krigger that he’d spotted in another young jockey, Mario Gutierrez. Like Krigger, Gutierrez had no real experience riding at a major track like Santa Anita, until O’Neill gave him shot.
Gutierrez made the most of the opportunity and landed regular riding duties on a horse named I’ll Have Another. Not only did Gutierrez ride I’ll Have Another to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, he also went on to win last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
The parallels are there. It was hard for O’Neill not to feel like he was experiencing deja vu when Krigger rode Goldencents to a sparkling win in the Santa Anita Derby two weeks ago. Although Goldencents had been overlooked in the betting (just as I’ll Have Another had been a year earlier), the outcome of the race was the same – a victory – and a forgone conclusion to the man riding him.
“For me, I knew we were going to win the race before we even ran the race,” said Krigger. “I felt like a winner before the race and during the race I felt the same way.”
Goldencents had been able to sit a perfect stalking trip behind pacesetter, Super Ninety Nine. When Krigger asked Goldencents to go on nearing the top the stretch, he easily passed Super Ninety Nine. But just outside of Goldencents was Flashback, a promising 3-year-old who had dueled Goldencents into submission just a month earlier in the San Felipe Stakes. On this day, Goldencents had enough in reserve to fend off Flashback’s charge.
Prior to the Santa Anita Derby, Flashback’s jockey, Julien Leparoux, lost his mount and was replaced by Garrett Gomez. We asked O’Neill if he or Goldencent’s owners (which notably include Louisville Basketball Coach, Rick Pitino) gave any though to similarly removing Krigger, following the “San Felipe duel.”
“No. Not even a smidge of a thought of that,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t the horse’s fault. We probably erred by getting in (Krigger’s) ear too much before the race, saying ‘do this and do that.'”
“In the Santa Anita Derby, we just took the approach, ‘just ride your horse, ride your race’,” O’Neill continued. “And that’s what Kevin did and we got the results we wanted to see.”
For his part, Krigger told us he doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong in the San Felipe either. Not one to mince words, Krigger said he places blame for the duel squarely on Leparoux, for “turning it into a match race.”
However, Krigger told us he holds no hard feelings over the race. In fact, the incident might’ve provided Krigger with an element of added satisfaction, perhaps even vindication, when he found himself in the winner’s circle with Goldencents less than a month later.
“We came back and won the Santa Anita Derby and we’re headed to the Kentucky Derby now,” Krigger said. “I can’t really complain.”
In listening to Krigger speak about Goldencents and their chances on the first Saturday in May, it’s clear that this jockey can back up his swagger with substance. I listened as, without prompting, Krigger rattled off the final times of several key Kentucky Derby prep races. Finally, he noted that the 1:48 and 3 Goldencents ran in the Santa Anita Derby was two to three seconds faster than the others.
“So, to me, I’m riding the horse that’s going to win the Kentucky Derby,” said Krigger. “Not just because of all of those points I just made but because I know the horse I’m on and I haven’t seen a horse that I feel threatened by, to be honest.”
In that statement, Krigger reaffirms two points: He doesn’t scare easily and he only speaks of which he truly believes. Sure, he takes pride in being the first African-American to ride in the Kentucky Derby since 2000 and only the third to be in America’s greatest race since 1920. But listening closely, I can tell that Krigger doesn’t necessarily need or want that to be the main storyline.
What I found in Krigger, and what many more soon will, is a certain depth of character. Nothing is more apparent than his raw honesty and striking authenticity. He articulates a genuine love and belief in his horse. And he does so in a manner that few other jockeys ever have, regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, gender or anything else.
“This is every jockey’s dream, no matter what circuit or what track they’re riding on…to make it to the Kentucky Derby,” Krigger said.
I would imagine the dream is even sweeter for Kevin Krigger. After all, unlike most dreams, this one already has a happy ending, as far as he’s concerned.