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Hovdey: Elliott making up for lost time in a hurry

Saturday, April 28th, 2018

Barbara D. Livingston
Stewart Elliott, 53, has 4,802 wins.

Stewart Elliott reported for work at Santa Anita Park on Thursday to find his name right there at the top of the standings, tied with Flavien Prat. Elliott’s reaction was typical of any rider in such a situation.

“Yeah, man, it felt pretty good,” Elliott said.

It should. There are jockeys who work as hard at their jobs as Elliott, but none harder. At age 53, the man who made history as the rider of Smarty Jones is enjoying a West Coast renaissance three seasons in the making, as well as the respect earned by a career of 4,802 wins going into this week’s action. Only 14 active North American riders have won more.

Elliott’s first six wins of the spring meet came for six different trainers, none of them exactly current title contenders. They are Ron McAnally, Art Sherman, Mike Puype, Brian Koriner, Ryan Hanson, and Kenny Black, for whom he won the Grade 3 American on April 21 aboard What a View.

For the past year, Elliott has teamed with rookie agent Carolyn Conley, familiar to racing fans for her broadcast work on TVG, among other outlets.

“She’s a hard worker and wants to do good,” Elliott said. “The only thing she lacked was experience, and now she’s got that. So it’s working out pretty good.”

On Sunday, Elliott will ride Mongolian Saturday for the first time in the Grade 3 San Simeon at about 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course. The 8-year-old son of Any Given Saturday is nearly 2 1/2 years removed from his grand moment of glory at Keeneland, where he won the 2015 running of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Mongolian Saturday has tried twice since then to recapture that magic and failed twice, but in between Breeders’ Cups he has shown enough flashes of past class to give Elliott good vibes going in.

“I breezed that horse and liked him,” Elliott said Friday after morning chores. “And I see that he came back to work again and looked like he went really well.”

Mongolian Saturday will be testing the tricky downhill course for the first time since he finished ninth, beaten six lengths, to Obviously and Om in the 2016 BC Turf Sprint.

“The first two times I rode the course took some getting used to, but after that it came pretty easy,” Elliott said. “I like it. I think it’s a cool race.

“The main thing is crossing the dirt. Most horses do that without much trouble. Doesn’t even faze ’em. But right there where you cross the first time is where you really start running, and a lot of horses switch leads early and drift out. You can get taken to the parking lot if you’re not careful.

“You pretty much know when they cross the dirt warming up,” he added. “Their first reaction is what you’re going to get. If they hesitate, they might need to see it a couple more times. Then there’s that one out of a hundred who’s never going to like it.”

At the racetrack, as in life, all glory is fleeting. By the end of Thursday Prat had put another win on the board and Elliott blanked. But the spring meet is still young, and Elliott has found the kind of momentum he thought he had rolling in August 2014 when his first California foray came to an abrupt halt because of two broken ribs in a freak backstretch accident.

“I came to Del Mar to ride for Mark Casse,” Elliott recalled. “I was just starting to work a lot of horses for some other real good barns when I got hurt. The day I went to the hospital to find out I had broken ribs was also the day our house in New Jersey sold.”

The plan was to move the Elliott family to Kentucky.

“I started riding at Keeneland, and I shouldn’t have, really,” he said. “Here I am with broken ribs, moving, picking up boxes, overdoing it. I thought my ribs were okay, but when I got on horses and they started pulling I’m like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ ”

Elliott got the message. His body needed a break. He connected with local trainer Tevis McCauley, who had a business outfitting hunters and fishermen in the great Kentucky outdoors. Elliott, an outdoorsman from his Canadian youth, became a popular guide.

“They nicknamed me ‘Derby’ because of Smarty Jones,” Elliott said. “Tevis let them know who I was, and they’d always have a lot of questions about horse racing. They were really interested, and I enjoyed myself a lot.”

And yet, for Elliott there was unfinished business. With his body and mind refreshed, he turned his sights west once again. After sitting out the entire 2015 season, he packed up his family and landed at Santa Anita, where he went back to work on Jan. 28, 2016. Eight mounts later, he returned to the winner’s circle.

“I liked being in the woods and all that,” Elliott said. “But when I healed, I started thinking I really should go back to California. I mean, it looked like things could be pretty good, so I should at least go back and see. Otherwise, I’d always be wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t got hurt.”

Now he knows.

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