The YouTube clip above became an internet sensation and was featured on “Good Morning America.”
Perhaps you’re one of the more than 400,000 viewers who have seen the clip on YouTube.
Or, like jockey Javier Castellano, you might have watched it on “Good Morning America.”
“I was home in the morning, and ‘Good Morning America’ was on the television. When I looked up, I saw they were showing a horse race,” Castellano said. “I was pretty surprised because they usually don’t show horse racing.”
As he watched, Castellano quickly realized it was a familiar and highly memorable race for him as well as for fellow riders like Jose Lezcano, though not for a reason they or any other rider would choose.
The race in question was the sixth race at Belmont Park on June 26, and in recent days it has elicited witty banter on national television, the internet and even at water coolers across the country over the way Downtown Hottie was able to cross the finish line first after losing her rider at the start.
The YouTube clip jokingly described Downtown Hottie as “emancipated” for winning without the “shackles” of a rider, but for the seven riders involved in the running of the race there was nothing comical about the 1:35.58 they spent on a racetrack with a loose horse.
“I can tell you, I wasn’t laughing during the race,” said Lezcano, 28.
If anything, it was yet another example of the unexpected life-and-death perils a jockey can face at any time in any race.
“All of the horses and riders came out of it fine, so I can understand why people are chuckling over it,” said Castellano, 35, whose mounts earned $22.4 million and won eight Grade 1 stakes in 2012. “But it was much different for us. We were in a situation that put us and our horses in jeopardy.”
The sixth race at Belmont Park on June 26 was a standard, run-of-the-mill optional claimer for New York-bred horses, but shortly after the starting gates opened it became one of those frightening moments when everyone watching nervously holds their breath. Downtown Hottie lunged at the break and hit the side of the gate. She stumbled as she moved forward and jockey Luis Saez fell off.
Fortunately, because the field was already a few lengths ahead of them, when Saez tumbled to the ground, neither horse nor rider was injured. Saez returned to ride in the very next race, but Downtown Hottie had no interest in waiting for another day. She began chasing in the horses in front of her as the starting gate crew yelled to the riders that there was a loose horse on the track.
“You know what happened and it’s a very uncomfortable feeling when you hear those shouts about a loose horse,” Castellano said. “You want to win the race, but you don’t know what to do because you are never sure of what the loose horse is going to do.”
While Castellano and his mount, Schillerette, never entered contention, the race produced far more anxiety for Lezcano, who was riding Wholelottashakin. The two were on the lead along the rail with three rivals in close pursuit when Downtown Hottie ranged up on the outside of them. As the field approached the turn, Downtown Hottie pulled away from the others and was suddenly running alongside Wholelottashakin.
“I was in a very tough position,” Lezcano said. “It changed the whole complexion of the race for me because I was pinned on the inside and I had to ride my horse while keeping my eye on the other horse.”
Turning into the stretch, with Downtown Hottie putting him in a precarious position, Lezcano pulled the reins on Wholelottashakin to let the riderless horse go by.
At the eighth pole, Downtown Hottie had cleared Wholelottashakin enough so that Lezcano could guide his horse to the outside of the loose runner. As Downtown Hottie edged clear en route to the “triumph” that made her an internet sensation, Lezcano began riding in earnest on Wholelottashakin and guided her to a half-length victory that actually mattered in terms of purse money and pari-mutuel payoffs.
“I was happy to win the race, but there was also a great deal of relief when the race was over,” Lezcano said. “I was just glad everything worked out.”
While the race might have been fodder for comedians, in Castellano’s opinion it underscored the respect jockeys should receive for risking life and limb on a daily basis.
“You hear a lot of people say jockeys are overpaid, but we have to make a lot of sacrifices to ride and there are so many risks we face. Anything can happen to us at any time. Every day when I go home, I say ‘Thank God, I’m OK.’ ”
Yes, as much fun as a day at the races may be, there are indeed times when it’s anything but a laughing matter.