4 jockey stats to know for Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs

April 27th, 2021

The jockey assignments for the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1) are set. A mix of veterans and newcomers will ride the “Run for the Roses,” including past Derby winners John Velazquez, Mike Smith, Joel Rosario, and Flavien Prat.

If you’re a bettor who factors jockey assignments into your handicapping, we’ve got a handful of stats and facts for you to keep in mind during Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs.

1. Top jockeys often win at a lower percentage

When top jockeys from around the country face off on big days at Churchill Downs, it can be difficult for high-percentage riders to maintain their usual win rate.

Looking specifically at win rates over the Churchill Downs main track since 2016, nationally renowned jockeys like Irad Ortiz Jr. (13%), John Velazquez (12%), and Luis Saez (8%) have won at significantly lower rates, compared to tracks where they ride on a regular basis.

It is important not to read too much into these lower win rates. When you have a dozen 20% and 25% jockeys facing off in race after race, their win percentages are naturally going to drop. The competition is fierce, the jockey colony is strong, and even a rider like Velazquez (the winner of three editions of the Kentucky Derby since 2011) has a tough time winning more than one out of every eight races.

2. Corey Lanerie and Brian Hernandez Jr. excel at Churchill Downs

There are advantages to supporting jockeys who excel at Churchill Downs on a regular basis.

Two examples are Corey Lanerie and Brian Hernandez Jr. Each boasts an impressive résumé of graded stakes wins at Churchill Downs.

Lanerie and Hernandez have both won meet titles at Churchill Downs, but the raw statistics don’t tell the full story of the impressive riding skills they bring to the table. Both Lanerie and Hernandez are unafraid of rail-skimming rides, and on many occasions, they’ve guided longshots through inside trips to upset important races.

Even when Lanerie and Hernandez don’t win, they can influence exotic wagers. In the 2017 Kentucky Derby, Lanerie executed a perfect, ground-saving ride to finish second aboard 33-1 longshot Lookin At Lee.

When the main track at Churchill Downs is sloppy, the inside rail often becomes the best part of the track. On wet days, in particular, it can pay to play Lanerie and Hernandez.

3. Mike Smith is sensational at 1 1/4 miles on dirt

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has won the Kentucky Derby twice, aboard Giacomo (2005) and Justify (2018), two of the highlights from his extraordinary résumé in 1 1/4-mile dirt races.

Smith’s lifetime record over Derby distance and surface stands at 54-41-27 from 266 starts — a 20% win rate, 46% in-the-money rate, and a profitable return on investment of 12% for bettors.

Smith will partner with Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Midnight Bourbon in the Kentucky Derby, and perhaps the colt is worth a $10 win bet, just in case.

4. Umberto Rispoli’s win rate is better on turf than dirt

Umberto Rispoli is a rising star on the California circuit, and through the years he has won top-level races in the U.S., Italy, France, Hong Kong, and Japan. But unlike many jockeys in North America, Rispoli wins at a significantly higher rate on turf than dirt — 23% versus 14%.

This may be partly because of a small sample size. Rispoli has only ridden 867 races since he shifted his tack to North America. Perhaps because of his reputation for riding top-class grass horses abroad, Rispoli has been given more opportunities to ride on turf than dirt. As he gains more recognition on the North American racing scene, he’s bound to receive more chances on dirt. Rispoli’s win percentage over the surface has climbed to 19% in 2021, highlighted by a win in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) aboard Rock Your World.

If you sample the riding records of North America’s top jockeys, you’ll find they consistently win at a higher rate on dirt than turf. The fact Rispoli’s record falls on the opposite end of the spectrum is eye-catching and a good reason to support any turf horses Rispoli rides during Kentucky Derby week.