Ellis Park’s riding colony the past few years has been pretty much an extension of Churchill Downs’ jockey population. This summer the Ellis jocks’ room also will look a lot like Indiana Grand.
Ellis Park opens Sunday June 27 and runs through Sept. 4. With racing
Fridays through Sundays, its schedule dovetails seamlessly with Indiana Grand, which this year runs Mondays through Thursdays. The only overlap between the tracks three hours apart is Thursday, July 1.
One could ride full-time at both tracks — if one doesn’t mind riding seven days a week all summer. And Marcelino Pedroza doesn’t. He, along with DeShawn Parker and Fernando De La Cruz, headlines the prominent Indiana jockeys looking to make hay at the Pea Patch.
“I’m so young, that if I can do it right now, why not?” the 28-year-old Pedroza said. “I missed a lot of days last year, probably rode only three months. So I feel fresh.”
Pedroza was sidelined for four months in early 2020 with a fractured collar bone, returning to ride nine races in May before an elbow injury kept him off another 3 1/2 months. He came back as strong as ever, winning 49 races at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds over the winter to finish sixth in the standings. He currently leads at Indiana Grand with 27 victories since that meet began April 13.
Parker possesses 5,864 career victories, including leading the nation in 2010 and 2011. The jockey, who began riding in 1988, spent much of his career in West Virginia and then Texas before relocating in 2017 to Indiana Grand, where he already is No. 8 all-time in victories. He won his first Indiana Grand title with 106 victories during last year’s COVID-shortened meet and currently ranks third with 18. Parker was honored in March as recipient of the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, voted on by riders nationally to recognize one of their own for an outstanding career and character.
The Peruvian-born De La Cruz won Indiana Grand’s 2014 and 2016 riding crowns. He is the track’s all-time riding leader in purse earnings at more than $25 million in the track’s 19-year history. His 35 stakes victories in the state also are a record. He joins all-time track leader Rodney Prescott as the only jockey with more than 1,000 wins at Indiana Grand.
Jose Batista, who has 14 wins at Indiana Grand this meet, likewise will ride both tracks. In addition to record purses at Ellis Park, clearly the jockeys are hoping that a greater presence this summer in Kentucky sets up opportunities in the fall at Churchill Downs and Keeneland.
“There are a lot of good horses to ride in Kentucky,” De La Cruz said on the Churchill Downs backstretch. “That’s the reason I’m with my agent walking around here, trying to get some good business.”
The Panamanian-born Pedroza was a fixture at Ellis earlier in his career. He won 20 races to tie for third in the 2015 riding standings and also was third in 2013 with 23.
Pedroza also leads at Indiana Grand this meet in purse earnings ($698,156) and mounts (161) as he pursues his third riding title at the Shelbyville track. He was leading rider in 2017 and then ran away with the 2019 Indiana Grand title, his 152 wins and $3,407,744 in purses records for the 120-date meet.
“Last year I was hurt, so that doesn’t count,” Pedroza, who lives in Louisville, said recently at Churchill Downs. “And the year before that, I was doing so well at Indiana that I wasn’t thinking about (riding at Ellis). I wasn’t riding here at Churchill, so I wasn’t worried about riding anywhere else than Indiana. Now I’m thinking to do more.”
While he has ridden sparingly at Churchill Downs so far this meet, Pedroza has made the most of limited opportunities. That includes winning the $150,000 Aristides Stakes on Bango and finishing second in the Grade 3 Matt Winn aboard O Besos, who four weeks earlier rallied to be fifth in Pedroza’s first Kentucky Derby. Both horses are trained by Greg Foley.
“It was a great experience, I don’t even have the words,” Pedroza said of the Derby. “It was a big dream come true. No excuses. The horse ran big.”
Asked about Pedroza, Foley said, “Marcelino is a good rider, period. A good kid, class act. I like him. I wouldn’t have ridden him in the Derby if I didn’t think he could ride.”
The Indiana jockeys will add to an already strong riding colony that should feature most of the Churchill Downs regulars. That includes 2020 Ellis leader Joe Talamo, 2019 champ James Graham, Corey Lanerie (five Ellis titles), Rafael Bejarano (two titles), two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Julien Leparoux, former apprentice Eclipse Award winners Brian Hernandez and Shaun Bridgmohan, along with Miguel Mena, Adam Beschizza, Gabriel Saez, Mitchell Murrill, Colby Hernandez, Declan Cannon and others. In addition, Louisville product Drayden Van Dyke will be based at Ellis Park for the first time this summer after making the move to Kentucky earlier this spring from California.
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