This jockey is the feel-good story horse racing needs after Derby debacle

Greg Cote
The Miami Herald

He woke up Sunday morning to find 487 unread text messages on his phone. So he wasn’t dreaming, then. It really happened.

Tyler Gaffalione, 5-3 and 112 pounds, had become the biggest thing in his sport.

From the town of Davie 30 minutes north of Miami, from Western High School, Gaffalione had just steered War Of Will to victory in the Preakness Stakes, a Triple Crown race at Pimlico in Baltimore on Saturday, to continue his trajectory as thoroughbred racing’s rising-star jockey. Gaffalione crossed in 1 minute 54.34 seconds, the fastest Preakness time since 2007. He was only the fourth jockey since 1960 to win the Preakness form the rail position.

“He relaxed beautifully,” said the rider of his champion. “He placed himself, and once a spot opened up, he didn’t hesitate.”

The Preakness bookended a rather insane two weeks for Gaffalione, who had been a central figure in the Kentucky Derby earlier in May, but without the celebration. Then, War Of Will had been the horse mainly affected when front-running Maximum Security veered sharply right — causing him to later be disqualified and have his victory erased. War Of Will, who seemed poised for a shot to perhaps charge and win, got swallowed in the mayhem finished seventh.

Gaffalione, 24, is prohibited from discussing the Derby controversy — what he calls “the incident” — because Maximum Security’s owners are suing the race stewards and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to overturn the disqualification. But the jockey had to admit the controversy at Churchill Downs made the Preakness win all the sweeter.

“It wasn’t anything to do with redemption or trying to prove something,” he said. “It was just that the horse deserved it. He’s got so much heart.”

Trainer Mark Casse calls War Of Will “a superhorse.” Trainer Mark Casse, fittingly, calls him by his initals: “Wow.” He is expected to run in the June 8 Belmont Stakes, though that isn’t yet official.

After the Preakness, off camera, Gaffalione saw what the victory, his first in a Triple Crown race, had meant to the 58-year-old trainer.

“I’m not an emotional person, but I won’t lie,” the jockey said Monday, “When Mark came to pick up the horse and everyone came around, I got a little emotional at that point.”

We caught Gaffalione at the airport Monday morning, headed to a race in Pennsylvania. Jockeys are some of the hardest-working athletes in sports. Do not get the idea that, like prizefighters, they only compete every few months in races big enough to be on TV. Gaffalione will run in close to 1,500 races this year.

So Saturday he’s winning the 144th Preakness on national TV, pink silks flashing across the finish to the roar of 131,256 spectators at Pimlico. And two days later, on a far smaller stage, “it’s business as usual,” he said. “We still have to handle our business.”

These are tough times in thoroughbred racing. Twenty-four horse deaths at Santa Anita since December. Maybe the biggest controversy in Kentucky Derby history. The Preakness likely leaving dilapidated Pimlico after 2020.

The sport needs a feel-good story, and it’s as if Gaffalione has raised his hand to volunteer.

In a sport of equine bloodlines, Gaffalione is a third-generation jockey.

His grandfather Bobby was good, running in more than 3,000 races.

His father Steve was better, riding to more than 800 wins.

Kid Tyler has proved better still. Phenom-good. Next-big-thing good, except that, after Saturday, next is now.

He won the 2015 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, sort of tantamount to rookie of the year. Since winning his first professional race on Sept. 7, 2014, he has already collected 1,084 career victories and won more than $42.7 million in earnings.

Saturday’s Preakness marked his career’s summit. Thus far, at least.

This is heady stuff for an American-born guy in a sport dominated by South American and other Hispanic jockeys.

Heady stuff for a kid who got his first pony at age 4. Who was raised in the paddocks and backsides of South Florida tracks Gulfstream, Calder and Hialeah, following his dad, learning by osmosis. (Tyler lives in Kentucky now, but says Gulfstream, in Hallandale, will “always” be his home track).

His father first saw something in the boy when he was age 13, how he leaned flat against a colt, how a horse responded.

“’What have we got here?”’ Steve recalled thinking.

The answer: A humble kid grateful to be carrying his family’s name.

Davie, where Tyler Gaffalione was raised, calls itself a town, not a city. It has a western feel. There is a horse in the town’s official seal. There is a rodeo. There are horse trails along the roadways. Where he’s from, family and town, shaped Gaffalione. And you get the sense he’s just getting started.

“I never thought I would ever make it to this point ,” he told us. “I grew up wanting to be as jockey, but I just wanted to have some kind of career at the track. I am overcome with joy, really.”