Jockey Jon Court Still Going Strong at Age 60
Now 60, Court turned back the clock – again – Saturday afternoon at Oaklawn when he guided Will’s Secret to a 5 ¼-length victory in the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile.
The Martha Washington was Court’s 689th career Oaklawn victory, 34th career Oaklawn stakes victory and first stakes victory as a sexagenarian. He turned 60 Nov. 26.
“At 60, it’s amazing,” Court said moments after winning at Oaklawn in a fifth decade. “I’m just very, very fortunate and thankful to the higher powers. Taking care of my health, I was able to do that.”
A year after launching his riding career, Court won 10 races as an apprentice at the 1981 Oaklawn meeting and recorded his first career stakes victory in Hot Springs aboard Earl’s Good Time in the $50,000 American Beauty Handicap Feb. 22, 1985. Court was Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2000 and has been a fixture in the standings for much of the past two decades, although he was winless in 2020 after missing most of the meet because of a collapsed lung and cracked ribs sustained in an accident going to the gate before a race in February. Court also was sidelined several months after the Oaklawn meet with a wrist injury.
The Martha Washington was Court’s first victory with Becky Esch, the jockey’s new agent. Esch said when Court’s former agent Steve Krajcir called last fall to inquire if she would be interested in taking another rider for the 2021 meet, she initially believed it was Kelsi Harr, Oaklawn’s leading apprentice last year.
“I thought he was talking about her,” said Esch, the longtime agent of Walter De La Cruz. “When he told me that he was talking about Jon, I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ He’s a household name around here.”
Krajcir again represents Harr at Oaklawn, along with De La Cruz’s brother, Fernando.
Will’s Secret, a homebred for Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark., represented Court’s final victory in 2020 and first this year. Trained by Dallas Stewart, Will’s Secret broke her maiden in a 1 1/16-mile off-the-turf maiden specials weights race Dec. 20 at Fair Grounds. In her stakes and 3-year-old debut, Will’s Secret ($18) recorded the most lopsided Martha Washington victory since Rachel Alexandra began her Horse of the Year campaign with an eight-length romp in 2009.
“She’s push button,” Court said. “She’ll give you the speed when you need it and she’ll sit off it. She continues to deliver every time you ask her. Any time in the race, she’s pretty much push button.”
Court said the Martha Washington, Oaklawn’s first of three Kentucky Oaks points races, had added significance because it was for Horton, best known for campaigning Eclipse Award winners Will Take Charge (the sire of Will’s Secret) and Take Charge Brandi.
Court won the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes and the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) aboard Will Take Charge in 2013 at Oaklawn, victories at 12-1 and 28-1, respectively, that helped the colt secure a 3-year-old championship. Court won the 2015 Martha Washington aboard odds-on favorite Take Charge Brandi, who was the country’s champion 2-year-old filly of 2014. Court and Horton also teamed to win the first division of the 2019 Rebel with Long Range Toddy, who, at odds of 8-1, upset future Eclipse Award winner Improbable.
“These silks mean a lot to me,” Court said. “Six years ago, I won this race for the Hortons, and here we are back again. The odds weren’t quite as favoring, but it was a pretty awesome experience to win. You know me, I’m known for pulling off long shots. It’s just what I do.”
According to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Court entered Sunday with 4,194 career North American victories to rank 63rd in history. Court ranked 52nd in North American history in career purse earnings ($108,191,731).
Retirement? No way, the jockey said. After all, Court’s still in session.
“I feel great,” Court said. “That (retirement) is always brought to my attention. I’ll do like Scott Stevens says: I am retired. I’m winning races doing it now. I’m really having fun doing it.”
Will’s Secret earned 10 points toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Oaks with her Martha Washington victory. She ranks ninth on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, according to Churchill Downs.
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Oaks series continues with the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) March 6 and the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) April 3. Stewart said next-race plans are pending for Will’s Secret, who has been based at Fair Grounds.
“She’s a real nice filly,” Stewart said. “She’s got a nice future ahead of her.”
Stewart and Horton teamed to win the 2006 Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever.
Arkansas Owners Shine
A common theme through Saturday at Oaklawn, Day 5 of the scheduled 57-day season, was Arkansas owners visiting the winner’s circle.
Alex and JoAnn Lieblong (Conway) won three races Jan. 24. John Ed Anthony (Hot Springs) also had three victories, including Caddo River in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes for 3-year-olds Jan. 22.
Willis Horton (Marshall), in partnership, won the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses Jan. 23 with Silver State. Horton struck again Saturday when his homebred, Will’s Secret, won the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Frank Fletcher (North Little Rock) completed a local stakes sweep Saturday when his homebred, Frank’s Rockette, won the $150,000 American Beauty for older female sprinters in her 2021 debut.
It was a happy homecoming for Frank’s Rockette, who finished second in the $100,000 Purple Martin Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters last April at Oaklawn. Frank’s Rockette won her next four starts, including the $100,000 Victory Ride Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park, $200,000 Prioress Stakes (G2) at Saratoga and the $150,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Frank’s Rockette concluded her 3-year-old campaign with an 11th-place finish against males in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
“It’s absolutely great to win for Mr. Fletcher there,” said Mott, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1986. “I know how thrilled he is to have one win right there for him. That’s like winning two races.”
Favored at 3-5 in the American Beauty, Frank’s Rockette tracked front-running Amy’s Challenge through a rapid half-mile (:44.68) before seizing the advantage on the outside in midstretch. Frank’s Rockette, under Florent Geroux, crossed the wire 1 ¼ lengths ahead of Amy’s Challenge and paid $3.20. The winning time for 6 furlongs over a muddy, sealed surface was 1:10.03.
“It worked out how we thought it would shape up,” Mott said. “Amy’s Challenge showed the speed and we stalked her. Fortunately, we were good enough to get it done.”
Mott said Frank’s Rockette would be vanned back to her south Florida base, possibly Monday, but could return to Oaklawn for the $250,000 Carousel Stakes April 10. Overall, Frank’s Rockette has won 7 of 12 lifetime starts and earned $696,103. She finished third in voting for champion female sprinter of 2020.
Sebastian “Bas” Nicholl, longtime assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, saddled Frank’s Rockette in Mott’s absence. Frank’s Rockette shipped into Lukas’ barn at Oaklawn.
Defending Oaklawn training champion Robertino Diodoro won two races Saturday. Diodoro won the fourth race with Keep Your Distance ($8.60) and the ninth race with favored Secret Courier ($5.60) for M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk), Oaklawn’s leading owners the last three years. Both winners were ridden by David Cohen, Oaklawn’s leading jockey in 2019. … Martin Garcia had a riding double Saturday, winning the second race aboard Wayakin ($11.80) and the sixth race aboard favored The Mary Rose ($6.40) for trainer Brad Cox. … Rated R Superstar ($17) was claimed out of his victory in Saturday’s third race for $50,000 by four-time Oaklawn leading owner Danny Caldwell. Rated R Superstar won the $350,000 Essex Handicap for older horses in 2019 at Oaklawn. … Grade 2 winner Flagstaff is among six older sprinters entered in the $150,000 King Cotton Stakes Saturday at Oaklawn. … Ava’s Grace, third in the $150,000 Adirondack Stakes (G2) Aug. 12 at Saratoga in her last start, is pointing for the $150,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters Feb. 13 at Oaklawn, Diodoro said.