Kevin Krigger was riding high in 2013.
Coming off his two most lucrative seasons in his 13th year as a jockey, he had worked his way into being a go-to guy for Southern California powerhouse trainer Doug O’Neill. He had the mount on a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender in Goldencents, who was 8-1 to make Krigger the first African-American jockey to win the Run for the Roses in 111 years.
He was 29, at the top of his game.
He and Goldencents finished 17th in the Derby. Then fifth in the Preakness. Then second twice back in California.
Then Krigger was replaced as Goldencents’ jockey. The horse went one way, winning consecutive runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, a $1 million race. Krigger went another and faded from the scene.
Jockeys get “fired” at the whim of a trainer or fickle owner every day. Elite riders move on to the next top horse. For a journeyman like Krigger, losing a mount like Goldencents can be devastating.
Soon after, his profile and the demand for his services declined for reasons he still doesn’t understand. It was disappointing, stressful and confusing.
“It’s not something that I can answer,” he said. “It just happened. It’s a puzzle to me. I don’t know where I went wrong.”
I felt like the next spill could be it. I really felt fragile. I had trouble just getting out of bed. That’s not me.
Jockey Kevin Krigger
Injuries became an issue. He suffered a second fracture of his L3 vertebrae during a spill early in 2014. With bone chips in his hips, a neck that had been fractured three times and a right collarbone that still sticks out far past the left, enough was enough, he decided.
“I felt like the next spill could be it,” he said. “I really felt fragile. I had trouble just getting out of bed. That’s not me.”
He threw up the white flag and retreated to his native U.S. Virgin Islands. After being gone three years, he’s back.
He’s up before the sun
Racing at the California State Fair is roughly the equivalent of Double A in baseball. The horses are less talented and there is less money to be made than in the sport’s big leagues.
Krigger, 33, is happy to be here. He’s won three races from 31 mounts since his return a month ago. Although Krigger’s Derby odyssey makes him one of the most recognizable names in Northern California, that doesn’t guarantee anything. Trainers want to see commitment in work ethic and dedication to the circuit before entrusting a rider with their horses.
“Kevin has (ridden regularly) in Northern California two or three different times,” his agent, Don August, said. “Every time he’s been here, he’s done very well. And every time he’s been here, he’s gone somewhere else and tried greener pastures. So, when he came back this time, a lot of trainers were really happy to see him, but in the back of their minds, they’re saying, ‘Well, he’s back again, will he leave again?’ ”
Krigger said he plans to be the first jockey at the track every morning, as he was Thursday before the sun came up, pulling into the parking lot at Golden Gate Fields in Albany at 5 a.m.
While the races are being held in the afternoon during the three-week Sacramento meet, the majority of horses remain stabled 90 minutes away at Golden Gate, where most of their preparation and the networking that lands a jockey mounts is done every morning.
981Number of victories
7,072Number of mounts
$19 millionCareer purse winnings
August went one direction and Krigger the other. Striding purposefully through the maze of shed rows that make up the Golden Gate backstretch, Krigger ducked into the office of one trainer after another to ask if they had anything for him – a horse to exercise or a mount to consider – or just to show his face.
Tim McCanna had a colt for him to gallop. While waiting for the horse to be readied, Krigger, soft-spoken yet clearly prideful, subtly motioned to something on the wall. It was a framed collection of five pictures from the July day in 2010 that Krigger rode five winners for McCanna at Emerald Downs near Seattle.
A reminder that he had been this way before.
He later galloped two horses for Debbie Winick. It was a slow morning, but Krigger, humming and smiling throughout, clearly was in his element.
“Everybody will tell you this is what I belong doing,” he said. “This is what I love doing. This is where I want to be. Just riding the horses. Getting on horses every day. Try to be the first rider on the track every day. Here in the dark, making the rounds, doing whatever I need to do.”
He’s living his dream
Then there’s his music.
While Krigger was away letting his body heal, he sang an eclectic mix of reggae and rhythm and blues with Caribbean and North Carolina – where his children live and he visits often – influences.
He developed his own record label, OGR4Life (Operation Get Rich). He plans to release his first album this year.
The theme of many of his songs is living the dream, which often includes making the money that allows for it. “Big Bank Account” is about the dream house on the hill and the good life that goes with it.
Krigger sang a few lines and offered his dream scenario: “Me jumping off a racehorse. Getting on a flight to go do a show someplace and then rushing back to the airport to come back to the races. That’s the dream.”
In the meantime, Krigger is staying with August, sleeping on the agent’s couch in an apartment five minutes from Golden Gate. He doesn’t own a car, but he did recently purchase a bike. August or Krigger’s valet drive him back and forth from Albany to Sacramento on race days.
Krigger has won 981 races from 7,072 mounts in his career, and his horses have earned more than $19 million in purse money. He gets 10 percent of the winner’s purse when he wins and 5 percent of the payout when he finishes second or third. He gets $100 when his mount fails to hit the board. His agent gets 25 percent and his valet – his racetrack assistant – gets 5 percent.
“My goals always remain the same,” Krigger said. “I want to see if I can find me that horse that I can win the Kentucky Derby with. If I don’t set that as my goal, I’m just wasting my time.”
The next chapter
At 5 feet 7 inches, Krigger is taller than most jockeys. He’s fighting his weight a bit, an issue he said will resolve itself the more he rides. His weight fluctuates between 116 and 118 pounds, while he would prefer to be in the 113-115 range, so he spends time in the “hot box” to reduce on race days.
He’s a vegetarian who cooks for himself, salmon, spinach, broccoli and peas, mostly.
“Don will tell you I eat good,” he said. “I don’t mess around. Dieting never worked for me. I can’t diet and make my weight where I want it to be. I eat to get full. Not overfull.”
My goals always remain the same. I want to see if I can find me that horse that I can win the Kentucky Derby with. If I don’t set that as my goal, I’m just wasting my time.
Jockey Kevin Krigger
Krigger has won one race in Sacramento in limited opportunities. He also was penalized with a three-day suspension for letting a horse drift out and bump another horse while in a stretch duel. He will ride the last weekend of the State Fair.
August said one thing trainers like about Krigger is he’s equally adept racing on the lead or coming from behind. And Krigger said he’s racing fit, despite his relative lack of competition.
“If it’s down to the wire right now, you’re not going to say Kevin got tired,” he said.
Marcia Stortz, a former jockey, has been among the trainers who have given Krigger a leg up early in his comeback. She said she likes Krigger because of his intelligence and effort.
“He’s a jockey who’s going to try hard for you every race, not just take a test drive,” Stortz said. “And sometimes being smarter is better than being stronger.”
Krigger was 4 when he starting riding horses in the Virgin Islands, leading them next to abandoned cars he would use for a lift. He was 17 when he won his first race. He was 29 when he won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
He’s healthy and happy and ready to write a new chapter.
“No matter what I do, I can’t get away from horse racing,” he said. “It’s a love. It’s an addiction. It’s what drives me.
“When I’m on a horse, there’s no place else I’d rather be.”
Steve Pajak: 916-326-5526