By Jennifer Hoyt/Oaklawn Park
USA: For jockey Stewart Elliott, it’s the drive to five – as in 5,000. Elliott, who rose to fame as the only rider of popular Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, moved on to his 4,949th career victory with doubles on both Thursday (April 8) and Friday cards at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Only 35 riders in North American history have reached 5,000 career victories. According to Equibase, Elliott ranks 37th in North American history for victories and 55th in purse earnings (almost $105 million); he has nearly 32,000 mounts to his name. He has ridden 25 winners in 2020.
Elliott came to national prominence in 2004 as the jockey of Smarty Jones, who swept Oaklawn’s Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby before winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
In 2017, Elliott won the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which is presented annually to a rider who demonstrates high personal and professional conduct. Now he is chasing personal glory again.
“The last big achievement was the George Woolf Award,” says Elliott, speaking during training hours at Oaklawn. “That was two, three years ago. That was big. But this would be big, too.
“I said when I was back in my 40s that I wanted to retire around 50,” the jockey adds. “I’m 55 now. You keep making hay while the sun shines. It’s still going good, so we’re just going to ride it out. I just take it year by year, month-by-month.”
A Toronto native, Elliott rode his first winner in 1981. His career peaked in 2004 when, boosted by the success of Smarty Jones, he rode 262 winners and ranked fourth nationally in purse earnings with a career-high $14,533,061. Following a stint in Southern California, Elliott relocated to the Midwest before the 2019 Oaklawn meeting.
Encouraged by agent Scott Hare, Elliott began riding at Sam Houston on Oaklawn’s dark days earlier this month and made an impact with 13 victories from 30 mounts before the track cancelled its final four days of racing because of COVID-19. All 13 wins came for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
“I was at Remington before I came here and I had a real good meet,” says Elliott. “Then we come over and I’m doing OK but a lot of my people don’t have the same amount of horses. I guess Steve had asked my agent if we were going to Lone Star, which we had planned on doing. Scott asked me if I wanted to go over to Sam Houston for a couple of days. It was working out really good – while it lasted.”
Elliott, who will head to Lone Star in Dallas when Oaklawn concludes, has maintained a heavy workload since the early 1990s – except 2015 when he quit riding to invest in a deer camp.
“I thought I could get into another business because I can’t do this forever,” says Elliott. “I thought: ‘What am I going to do when this is done?’ Was off for about a year for that and it makes me realise that I don’t know what I’m going to do, really, after I’m riding.
“As long as you feel like your ability is there, and your business is good enough, keep going. This time when it’s over, it’s over. When you’re 20, you can always come back. When you’re 55, you can’t come back.”
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