Albarado Hitting 5,000 in Full Stride

By Michael Adolphson
Thoroughbred Daily News

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana–One would imagine they call them journeymen for a reason. Always on the go, from one horse to another, racetrack to another and airport to another. In the same fold, it is the journey that seems to have brought the most satisfaction to veteran jockey Robby Albarado as he closes in on becoming only the 33rd American rider in Thoroughbred racing history to win 5,000 races. The 43-year-old native of Lafayette, Louisiana, seems to have a keen sense of the highs and lows of the game, with enviable accomplishments and global successes intersecting with unfortunate circumstances and humbling experiences to create an equilibrium point called wisdom. From said junction is where the winner of 201 graded stakes appears to operate, with a tangible passion that defies his age.

“Things are going well,” Albarado said. “I don’t think anyone continuously wins a bunch of races and you’re bound to have your ups and downs. [Approaching 5,000 wins] makes you feel a little old and like you’ve been around a long time, but I feel great. My family life is good and I have a great support system and that helps a lot, no matter what sport you play or job you do.

“When I go out there, I always try to remember that on slower days you may feel like there are no major races, but those races are major to somebody,” Albarado continued. “A win means a lot, no matter the race and I’ve been around for a long time and learned that you feel really good when you help out people. Whether it’s by riding for someone or giving advice to help these younger riders, I think it’s important to be a good influence. Especially with the younger jocks coming up. You want them to be not just be better jockeys, but better people.”

While a senior member of the Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs colonies in maturity, the athletic three-time Breeders’ Cup winner is far from cashing in his chips. The pilot of mounts who have earned than $205 million in purses is fresh off a season in which he rode (1,179) and won (172) more races than in the previous four years, while utilizing his textbook strength-meets-finesse style to win five graded stakes. His talent with exceptional stock was on display during the abbreviated career of Not This Time (Giant’s Causeway), whose desperate neck runner-up effort would have won most GI Breeders’ Cup Juveniles.

No stranger to top horses, he has an enviable rolodex of champions upon which to reflect from his more than 31,000 mounts thus far, including such class animals as Captain Steve, Orientate, Court Vision, Stellar Jayne and Banshee Breeze.

Still, there is no question that among his 35 Grade I victories, those earned by greats Mineshaft and Curlin stand out. Each of those titans earned Horse of the Year championships by repeatedly dominating their rivals. Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen, also gave Albarado his first Triple Crown event, Breeders’ Cup and international victories when taking the 2007 GI Preakness S. and GI Breeders’ Cup Classic, followed by the 2008 GI Dubai World Cup.

“They were easily the best two and it’s hard to compare them because they were two different horses from two different eras,” Albarado reflected. “Curlin was a big, immature horse early on who had unlimited talent and then put it together. He was really well-managed and became very dominant. Mineshaft was very special and masterfully managed by Neil Howard and [owner] Mr. [William S. Farish III]. He had a way of moving and was so fast. You could feel his confidence. I’m still not over losing the Stephen Foster on him, but that was my fault and you try to learn from it. Both horses gave you an incredible feeling. Actually, the fastest horse when it comes to speed I have ever ridden was a little Texas-bred named Touch Tone for Ronny Werner. He didn’t run very many times, but he was such a talented horse.”

Loyal horsemen throughout the country have stuck by Albarado, despite some of his tougher times. A highly publicized domestic dispute and subsequent court case took a severe toll on his business, but the eternally optimistic Albarado took it with heavy doses of humility and perspective, just as he has done while going multiple injuries, including one that cost him the mount on GI Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom the week of the race.

“The legal stuff didn’t help, but I dealt with it, owned up to it and we got through it,” he explained. “Now I’m focused on riding, I’m still the same Robby Albarado in the saddle and I try to look on the bright side. You can’t change the past, but you learn from it. I fractured my skull and busted my eardrum and now I actually hear better out of that ear. When I broke my collarbone, my golf swing went from outside-in to inside and is much better now. I try to pull the positives out of when things go poorly.

“You learn as you go,” Albarado continued. “When I was a teenager, I didn’t get within five miles of a gym, but as you get older or you get injured, you get educated about your body. You learn about how instrumental it is to stay healthy physically and mentally. You always have young, hungry and athletic jockeys coming up and coming after your spot, so you have to keep yourself in shape so you can use that as much as you use your wisdom. It’s like Derek Jeter, who is one of my favorite athletes. So many shortstops went after his job with the Yankees and he kept himself on top and in shape, in addition to obviously being very talented.”

While his talent has made it easier for said horsemen to stay steadfast and load the equine bases for Albarado, it is his character and sense of duty that have hit a home run with his colleagues.

“He’s been a big part of my career both on and off the track and meant a great deal to my operation and to my wife and family, too,” said Neil Howard, trainer of Mineshaft. “It’s no secret the kind of rider he is. He’s one of the best in the country and his accomplishments speak for themselves. Obviously when you have a good horse like Mineshaft they often aren’t too complicated, but it’s the Wednesday-Thursday-Friday horses that he’s always been a great help on. Mr. Farish and I get good feedback and he’s always candid and that’s been absolutely key.”

“Great memories {with Albarado},” Asmussen added. “Robby rode our first Grade I winner Dreams Galore in the (1999) Mother Goose, our first Classic winner Curlin (in the Preakness) and our first Breeders’ Cup winner (also Curlin).”

Since beginning his career in June of 1990 at 16 years old, Albarado has had the acquisition of a Kentucky Derby trophy on his to-do list. Adding a sprinkle of insults to the injury of losing the Animal Kingdom mount is that fact that the possible future Hall of Famer has hit the board in the Run for the Roses three times.

“You feel like a deflated balloon when you lose the Derby, but I still get goosebumps when I think of the race,” he said. “If you’ve ever been to the Derby and you don’t enjoy it, then you don’t belong in horse racing. It’s something so special and I’ve been so close, but I try not to feel bad about that. Pat Day was one of the greatest riders of all time and he only won the race one time and hit the board a bunch more. With the Animal Kingdom situation, especially with winning a Grade I the day of the race while wearing a protective face mask–that wasn’t easy, but that’s how racing goes and I still am very hungry to win it and know I can do it.”

With all that Albarado has accomplished as he approaches such a significant milestone, one would imagine some sign of slowing down would become apparent, but the father of four is firing on all cylinders in 2017 and appears to have renewed fervor. From 21 mounts in the first week of the new year, he has hit the board 15 times and landed three victories, indicating that the proverbial journey is far from its destination.

“It helps with the right horses, of course, but I feel like I’m more comfortable out there and I’m making good decisions,” Albarado said. “My agent Lenny {Pike} and I have been together for over 20 years and we have a great relationship and we feel great about how things are going. We are going after the right opportunities and the right spots.

“It’s still fun to ride,” he concluded. “I love to look at a race and pull it apart and then go out there execute it perfectly. It doesn’t always work out that way, but nothing feels better than when it does.”