by Jeremy Plonk
February 4, 2019
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have proven to be about as good a jockey-trainer combo as we’ve ever seen in sports. Sunday’s ninth Super Bowl appearance and sixth trophy testify to that for the NFL’s premier player-coach relationship. Their rare air may include few tandems in history, perhaps Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, or Bill Russell and Red Auerbach, both in the NBA. Baseball’s Yankees had some historic runs with Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel of yesteryear, and Derek Jeter and Joe Torre in more recent times. But those didn’t match this length of success. (Don’t ask me about hockey!)
Horse racing’s great combinations of player (jockey) and coach (trainer) also have been a part of our fabric. Their relationship can be a bit more strained than those of the team sports. Contracts rarely exist, so commitment may be as fickle as your preference to chocolate or vanilla. It’s really the ultimate free agency. As team sports have become more fluid in player and coach movement, we’re going to see less and less of the Brady & Belichick tandems. Not that nine Super Bowls are in the works for anyone for sure in the future, but even the longevity. Two decades with the same team even individually for a player or coach was thought to have expired with the likes of Cal Ripken and Tom Landry.
Horse racing’s closest current comparable to Brady & Belichick has to be jockey John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher. They won their first race together in April of 1996 with a horse named Rare Rock. That was a foreshadowing name as their relationship has been both rare and a rock. When they finally reached the sport’s pinnacle in tandem, the 2017 Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming, they had already won more than 1,600 races together, including the 2007 Belmont Stakes with the historic filly Rags to Riches.
Over the years, Javier Castellano has worked closely with the powerful Pletcher operation and at times it’s difficult to discern the gap between the main rider Velazquez and the virtually main rider Castellano. Brady rarely had another A-lister nipping at his heels on the depth chart, but there have been the likes of Matt Cassel and Jimmy Garappolo. But most often it’s been Johnny V riding shotgun with Pletcher in their successes.
The gap between Velazquez-Pletcher and any other player-coach combo in horse racing is vast. The aforementioned Castellano has had great first-call success with the championship barn of Chad Brown. They won a Preakness together with Cloud Computing in 2017 just two weeks after the Velazquez-Pletcher Derby score for Always Dreaming. Castellano-Brown have combined for four Breeders’ Cup victories since 2012, so there’s time to build on that legacy. But there’s young Irad Ortiz entrenched in the Brown barn as well, meaning a Brady-Belichick like run for Castellano-Brown will have stout competition and seems nearly impossible to materialize.
Bob Baffert has had that 20-year run atop the spot like Belichick. He won his first Triple Crown race in 1997 with Silver Charm and hasn’t slowed up a bit. But he’s never enjoyed the patient partnership to find the yin to his yang. His Kentucky Derby winners have been ridden by Gary Stevens (Silver Charm), Kent Desormeaux (Real Quiet), Victor Espinoza (War Emblem, American Pharoah) and Mike Smith (Justify). Espinoza has had the most success with Baffert in the Triple Crown, winning 5 races together, but they’ve been on and off together more times than Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson to further our coach-player analogies.
The ultimate ‘coach’ in racing has been D. Wayne Lukas, figuratively and literally. He won his first Triple Crown race with Codex in 1980 and still has some fastballs to fire, winning the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow most recently on the biggest stage. The cool thing here is that Lukas’ first Kentucky Derby win came in 1988 with the filly Winning Colors, and his most recent TC victory by the aforementioned Oxbow some 25 years later. The common thread? Jockey Gary Stevens piloted both; the first at age 25, the second at a ripe 50. Stevens recently retired, but not before he and Lukas did some amazing things together. They won the Kentucky Derby with not only Winning Colors, but also with Thunder Gulch, who in 1995 added the Belmont Stakes. But their big-stage success wasn’t always exclusive. Stevens had almost equal success with Baffert in the Triple Crown, and Lukas plied Pat Day on a stout portion of his biggest wins. It’s almost unthinkable that their 31 combined Breeders’ Cup victories (Lukas 20, Stevens 11) don’t include a single score together. It’s hard to talk Brady-Belichick with that being known.
Horse racing’s way back machine may take you to Eddie Arcaro riding for Ben Jones, who teamed to win the Kentucky Derby four times. But even they weren’t infallible. In the height of their dominance in the run for the roses, Arcaro rode Hoop Jr. to the 1945 victory over Jones and Calumet’s runner-up Pot O’ Luck. Imagine Brady doing that to Belichick?