For jockey Stewart Elliott, it’s the drive to five – as in 5,000.
Elliott, who rose to fame as the only rider of champion and dual classic winner Smarty Jones, recorded his 4,942nd career victory in Saturday’s 10th race at Oaklawn aboard Wild Popit for trainer Randy Morse, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
Only 35 riders in North American history have reached 5,000 career victories. Elliott ranked 37th in North American history for victories and 55th in purse earnings ($104,661,034) entering Thursday’s nine-race card at Oaklawn.
“The last big achievement was the George Woolf Award,” Elliott, 55, said during training hours Thursday morning. “That was two, three years ago. That was big. But this would be big, too.”
Elliott, in 2017, won the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which is presented annually to a rider who demonstrates high personal and professional conduct. 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.
Now, Elliott is chasing personal glory again.
“I said when I was back in my 40s that I wanted to retire around 50,” Elliott said. “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. Elliott’s 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. Elliott rode 24 winners last year at Oaklawn and had nine at this year’s meet through Sunday.
Encouraged by his 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 canceled its final four days of racing because of the new virus, 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,” Elliott said. “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 called riding at Sam Houston a “good thing” and said he plans to ride regularly at another Texas venue, Lone Star in suburban Dallas after the Oaklawn meeting ends. Elliott 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 I get into another business because I can’t do this forever,” Elliott said. “I thought: ‘What am I going to do when this is done?’ Was off for about a year for that and it makes me realize 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.”
Elliott entered Thursday with 91 career victories at Oaklawn.
On the Tab
Two multiple Oaklawn stakes winners recorded swift workouts over a fast track Thursday morning.
Amy’s Challenge, breezing after the second surface renovation break, covered a half-mile in :47.20 for trainer Mac Robertson, who said he is pointing the daughter of Artie Schiller for the $125,000 Carousel Stakes for older female sprinters April 25. The time was the fastest of 66 works recorded at the distance. Clockers caught Amy’s Challenge galloping out 5 furlongs in :59.80 and 6 furlongs in 1:13.20.
Amy’s Challenge is a three-time stakes winner at Oaklawn. She won the $125,000 Dixie Belle as a 3-year-old in 2018 and the $100,000 American Beauty and $100,000 Spring Fever last year.
Gray Attempt earned the 5-furlong bullet (1:00.20), the colt’s third recorded breeze this month in advance of a comeback race that trainer Jinks Fires of Hot Springs said he hopes will be before the meeting’s scheduled close, May 2. After finishing ninth in a Jan. 24 allowance race, Fires said Gray Attempt was treated for stomach ulcers. Gray Attempt’s internal splits Thursday, according to clockers, were :11.60 for his opening eighth of a mile, :23.60 for a quarter-mile, :36 for 3 furlongs and :48 for a half-mile. Gray Attempt galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:13 and 7 furlongs in 1:28.
Gray Attempt was among Oaklawn’s leading 3-year-olds last year, winning the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes in his two-two debut before cutting back to 6 furlongs to claim the $125,000 Gazebo Stakes.
Wells Bayou, winner of the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) last Saturday at Fair Grounds, returned to Hot Springs Wednesday, according to Jorgito Abrego, who oversees trainer Brad Cox’s Oaklawn division. Wells Bayou, who galloped approximately 1 ½ miles after the first surface renovation break Thursday morning, started twice earlier this year at Oaklawn. The Lookin At Lucky colt was a first-level allowance winner Jan. 26 before finishing second in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 17. Wells Bayou is a candidate for the $750,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) May 2. … Fight On, who has been based this year in the United Arab Emirates, could return to Oaklawn before the meeting’s scheduled end, May 2, trainer Doug O’Neill said Tuesday afternoon. “If he’s doing well and there’s something there for him, he might run there,” O’Neill said. “He really seemed to enjoy that surface last year, so he could show up.” Fight On won the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses last year at Oaklawn. The Southern California-based O’Neill already has approximately 10 horses at Oaklawn. … Wilbo, winner of the $125,000 King Cotton Stakes for older sprinters in 2018 at Oaklawn, is entered in Sunday’s eighth race, an allowance/optional claimer at 6 furlongs. … Daphne Moon, fifth in the $400,000 Frizette Stakes (G1) Oct. 6 at Belmont Park, is scheduled to make her 3-year-old debut in Sunday’s third race, a 1 1/16-mile allowance, for trainer Jeremiah Englehart. …Frizzette runner-up Frank’s Rockette is pointing for the $100,000 Purple Martin Stakes April 4 at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and breeder/owner Frank Fletcher of North Little Rock, Ark.