Jockeying for spot in history book
Kevin Krigger will have one of the best seats in the house as he competes in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. The 29-year-old jockey will have his first ride in the Run for the Roses aboard Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents.
Krigger, an African-American and native of the US Virgin Islands, started riding with the Derby in mind in 1997, when he watched Silver Charm capture the first leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs.
Krigger had just received his first saddle – a gift from a neighbor on St. Croix – and flipped it over the arm of the couch in the living room.
“The Derby came on the TV, he got on his saddle and rode the race,” his father, Albert Krigger, said with a laugh.
It was the first Derby that Krigger recalls watching but he’s been tuned in since, viewing several others in the saddle on the side of the couch and later watching on TV from wherever his career had him riding.
The super-confident Krigger has a chance to make history. It’s been 111 years since an African-American jockey (Jimmy Winkfield) won the race deemed the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports and Krigger will be the second in 92 years to get the opportunity (Marlon St. Julien finished seventh on Curule in 2000).
And he has a big-time shot to capture the roses. Goldencents is considered the top threat from the West Coast and is expected to be one of the betting favorites in the Derby field, which is expected to consist of the usual 20 horses.
“I’m embracing this opportunity,” Krigger said. “I have prepared myself for this race a very long time ago. I have ridden the Kentucky Derby 100 times already. I appreciate being here and the opportunity, and I’m ready for it.”
Krigger is so confident in his horse and his abilities that he’s not only predicted a Derby win but said “we’re going after the Triple Crown.” The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978.
Goldencents’ trainer Doug O’Neill, who won last year’s Derby with I’ll Have Another, said he doesn’t mind the prediction, while Krigger’s agent — Tom Knust — said his client is confident every time he jumps in the saddle.
“In Kevin’s mind, he’s going to win every race that he rides,” Knust, said. “He has so much confidence in the horse, he doesn’t have a problem telling people he is going to win Saturday. It’s not like being cocky, he just believes it.”
Trying to make history
Krigger said he “recognizes” the significance of this ride but noted, “it's not like I’m just in it to be the first African-American to win since 1902.”
Still, he’s been asked the question over and over this week.
Winkfield won in 1901 and ’02 and then finished second in ’03. Black jockeys dominated the Derby early on, winning 15 of the first 28 races.
The first Derby in 1875 the field had 13 of 15 jockeys who were black but the numbers dipped and currently the Jockeys’ Guild says there are about 50 active black jockeys in thoroughbred racing.
Krigger said he has a photo of Winkfield in his locker at Santa Anita.
He’s well versed in the history of black jockeys, but Krigger said he’s not going to be thinking of his skin color when he enters the starting gate.
“Being African-American is just part of who I am,” he said. “I am just hoping it really does send a message that every sport you look at has more diversity than horse racing. In horse racing we are in the minority but it’s not something I don’t dwell on. I don’t want to win the Derby just because I am African-American.”
The early days
Krigger said horses are pets, saying, “they’re like dogs or cats are here,” in the Virgin Islands and Albert Krigger said his son first rode when he was 5 years old.
The jockey recalls sneaking out the back door of his family’s house, jumping on a neighbor’s horse and taking off past several of his family members.
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When his grandmother gave him a horse at age 6, Albert Krigger said, “that was it,” noting that his son was hooked on the ponies.
“He was on the road to horse racing,” the father said.
Krigger learned to ride on bush tracks in the Virgin Islands but said he wanted to come to the U.S. to try his hand because, “I knew I could make it.”
So in 2001, Krigger tried it. He was 17 years old when he arrived at Thistledown Racetrack in Cleveland, where he won 50 races. He spent some time at Mountaineer Park in New Cumberland, West Va., before heading to Golden Gate Fields, outside of San Francisco. There, he won a dozen races in less than a month.
Still an apprentice jockey (who receives a weight allowance), Krigger went to the more competitive Southern California colony. He said he “wasn’t very successful” and ended up not getting too many mounts.
“It was a struggle,” said Krigger, who spent the next nine years bouncing all over the country, including racing in the 2004 fall meet at Churchill Downs, where he had five winners in 68 mounts.
In 2007, Krigger suffered a bad fall at Indiana Downs and fractured three vertebrae. In 2009 — after only 11 wins in two years — Krigger decided to take his now fiancé Taisha Mintas back home to St. Croix. The couple has three children together and Mintas has one child from a previous relationship, ages 2 to 11.
Return to the US
Krigger had neck surgery in 2010 and opted to come back to Northern California late that year, which turned his career around.
A self-proclaimed “more mature” Krigger won 165 times for almost $3 million in purses in 2011 and went to the winners’ circle 73 times last year, including the $1 million Delta Jackpot, for almost $4 million in purses.
Krigger said the “best decision he made” was when Knust called to see if he could take his book. He moved his family to Southern California.
“He was making good money, nice and secure,” Knust said. “But with Kevin, comfortable wasn’t getting it. He wanted to go somewhere where he could get that Derby horse and Southern California is the best place to do it. So he came South.”
Krigger finished 10th in the jockey standings at the recent Santa Anita meet after winning 25 times on 172 mounts.
O’Neill and trainer John Sadler are two of the trainers that ride Krigger the most.
“I had known of Kevin for a while,” O’Neill said. “He got a lot of experience before landing back in California. He is well spoken, horses run for him and he’s confident and not arrogant. He has ice water running through his veins.”
Race plays a part
Krigger said he’s not looking for any excuses when he talks about his race and how it’s affected his career. But Knust said his jockey has “overcome a lot of obstacles.”
“It’s kind of a fine line,” Knust said. “It hasn’t hurt him in Doug O’Neill’s barn. There are barriers and a lot of pride in Kevin. But when you get down to it, he wants to be known as a jockey and he wants people to know that he can ride, being black, white or whatever is not going to make him a bad jockey or a good jockey.”
Krigger is the only jockey who has ridden Goldencents for his six career starts and picked up the mount in August when O’Neill had him work the horse.
O’Neill told him he could ride the horse but that Krigger would have to sell it to the owners, a group that includes University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.
“The owners loved him and he fit the horse,” O’Neill said.
Goldencents won his first career start and then finished second to 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne Stakes before winning the Delta Jackpot. He won the Sham Stakes and finished fourth in the San Felipe before capturing the Santa Anita and earning a trip to the Derby.
“I’ve always thought I was the best rider in the world,” Krigger said. “Goldencents is the horse that is going to help me prove that to everyone.”
After the Santa Anita Derby, Krigger said his 6-year-old son – Kevin Jr. – grabbed the microphone and announced, “We’re going to the Kentucky Derby.”
It’s something Krigger had been saying for years, now it’s a reality.
“I knew that one of these days I was going to get my opportunity and I wanted to be ready for it,” Krigger said. “I told my mom when I was in kindergarten that I wanted to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Here I am, and I am ready.”
Jody Demling writes for CardinalAuthority.com on the Scout network.