Krigger rides for glory at the Kentucky Derby

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Kevin Krigger has spent most of his life looking for rides.

As a boy on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Krigger would attempt to get a lift to the local horse-racing track from a friendly driver. If that failed, Krigger said, he would walk two hours just to watch the races.

As an adult, at tracks in Ohio, West Virginia, Washington and elsewhere, Krigger has been on a 12-year mission to convince racehorse trainers to let him be their jockey. Life isn’t easy for a journeyman rider nearing 30, particularly one with a rather light resume. That’s why Krigger is smiling so much these days.

On Saturday, Krigger will ride in the Kentucky Derby for the first time, and not on some plodding longshot. Krigger will be aboard Goldencents, a speedster that could help Krigger make history.

“I just want May 4 to come, so I can get this Derby win under my belt,” Krigger said. “I feel like I’m on the winning horse. There’s not another horse I wish I was on instead. I’m right where I want to be.”

Krigger, 29, is black, and if any old ghosts are haunting Churchill Downs, they won’t be surprised. The first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, included 15 horses, and 13 of them had black jockeys.

Jim Crow segregation laws steadily drove black jockeys from the track, and by the early 20th century, they had become scarce. They never really returned, even after the civil-rights movement.

Krigger’s Santa Anita locker includes a picture of Jimmy Winkfield, the last black jockey to win the Derby (in 1902), and Krigger will become the race’s first black jockey since Marlon St. Julien in 2000.

If that is on Krigger’s mind, he downplays it. Ask him about being a part of racial history, and he calls it “an honor,” but in the next breath, he says he doesn’t want to be celebrated simply for making it to the race.

“I don’t dream about riding in the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “I dream about winning the Kentucky Derby.”

What a story that would be, given that two months ago, only die-hard railbirds had heard of Krigger.

A 29-year-old small-time jockey is comparable to a 29-year-old minor league baseball player, still waiting for that first call-up to the majors. An outsider might wonder why he doesn’t quit and find a more stable lifestyle, but the athlete persists, with the belief that all he needs is one chance, one moment.

This is Krigger’s moment. He has been aboard Goldencents for all six of his races, including four victories. When the colt won the Santa Anita Derby last month and qualified for the Kentucky Derby, trainer Doug O’Neill didn’t give a thought to replacing Krigger with a jockey who had previous Derby experience.

“It takes a lot of hard work and self-confidence to take an opportunity and run with it,” O’Neill said. “He was just so ready, so prepared, for this opportunity, and we’re seeing the results of it.”

Preparation started on St. Croix, an island where, as Krigger puts it, horses are as common to the residents as dogs are to mainland Americans. The big backyard of Krigger’s childhood home was perfect for horses.

Krigger started riding professionally as a teenager and, seeing an opportunity for a career, he moved to Ohio at age 17. A couple years later, Krigger had an apprenticeship at Southern California tracks, but it led to only modest success and not enough interest from trainers, so Krigger set out to prove himself.

After bouncing around the country, Krigger found some success in Seattle in 2011, then more during a stint at Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area. That’s where respected jockey agent Tom Knust found him.

“I’ve been around the track for 45 years,” Knust said. “I’ve never known anybody like Kevin. He’s a hard worker and a good family man. And he’s talented. He has a lot of ability. He gets horses to relax for him.”

Knust brought Krigger back to Southern California last year, and that’s when the legwork started. Krigger would walk the barn area in the morning, when horses train, and offer his services.

“Every morning, he would be at the barn at 6,” said David Kenney, a Yorba Linda resident and part-owner of Goldencents. “He would always ask Doug (O’Neill), ‘Hey, is there anything I can do for you guys? Is there any horse you need worked?’ He showed up every single day and would ask the same questions.”

O’Neill said he and the workers at his barn “fell in love” with Krigger because of the jockey’s attitude and persistence, and one morning, O’Neill did have work for Krigger, as Goldencents’ exercise rider.

Goldencents had yet to run a race, but he certainly made an impression on Krigger.

“It’s like driving cars,” Krigger said. “You put yourself in a Kia. You put yourself in an Acura. Then you go from an Acura to a Magnum, and then a Magnum to a Corvette. It’s the same with horses. They have different levels. And when you see a horse like Goldencents, you know you have a Kentucky Derby horse.”

On Sept. 2, 2012, Goldencents debuted, with Krigger aboard, and smashed a field of nine other horses in an 8-length victory. Goldencents had two wins and one second-place finish after his next two races, but faded to a disappointing fourth in the March 9 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

That set up the Santa Anita Derby, and Krigger came through with a winning ride, one that increased his profile and led to national TV appearances and feature stories. Krigger won’t lack for rides for a while.

“It’s going to be a little easier for him now,” Kenney said. “People said, ‘Who is Kevin Krigger?’ Well, now he’s the jockey who just won the Santa Anita Derby. I’m hoping that this opens up some doors for Kevin.”

It has already opened the door to Churchill Downs, and the biggest moment of Krigger’s career. His fiancée, Taisha, and their four kids – the oldest, Kyrisha, is 12 – will be there, with his parents and three sisters.

Krigger knows what this moment means, for him, for his family and maybe for the next generation of black jockeys, but he’s focused on the right things: getting Goldencents a good break out of the gate, staying out of traffic, riding smart. And, of course, winning.

“I refrain from saying, ‘I’m excited’ a lot,” Krigger said. “It’s not that I’m not excited to be in this position. I’m just not jumping-out-of-my-skin excited. I’m more ready than anything. I think I have the winning horse.”

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