"How old is that jockey?"
It was an honest question. A good question. Posed by a fan to a writer, minutes after yesterday's feature, the New York Turf Writers Cup. The jockey walked past. Looking at him, he looked young and old all at the same time. Gray hair and life's lines across his face made him look old. The smile and the bounce made him look young.
That's what happens when you win a Grade 1 stakes at Saratoga. Riding jumpers is for young men, not old men. Bernie Dalton, somehow, is both. Built like a corn stalk after a dry summer, Dalton might look old, but he rides young.
Dalton began his first foray at jump racing in England. The everyday grind of being a jump jockey in England has a way of stamping the inevitable into your soul. It's a tough way to make a living, driving hours each day for a ride or two, smashing around in the dead of winter, then getting back in the car to do it all over the next day. If you're 18-time champion jump jockey Tony McCoy, it's tough but glorious and lucrative. If you're Dalton or any of the other refugees who rode in yesterday's Turf Writers (there was one American-born jockey in the race), it's mostly tough.
"I didn't pack up because I didn't want to do it, I packed up because I was no good, I wasn't getting any winners in England," Dalton said. "I've got the experience, I can put them in the right place if they're good enough, but I'm no Tony McCoy, you know?"
No, Dalton wasn't McCoy. He went to Newmarket, becoming head lad for Alec Stewart and Luca Cumani, then took a job in Dubai. Funny how a short-term decision, a lark, can become a catalyst.
"I got bored with being head lad in Newmarket, it was nice but it wasn't what I wanted, I didn't find it very fulfilling," Dalton said. "I said I'd go to Dubai, how bad can it be, sun and sand for six months. I ended up with Kiaran and came over here. As far as I'm concerned, it was the best move I ever made."
Kiaran McLaughlin says Dalton's the best there's ever been (no offense, Rob, Rog, Pat and all of today's heroes).
"He made us a lot of money," the trainer said the other day. "He can ride anything. I mean anything."
Dalton galloped the likes of Henny Hughes and Invasor for McLaughlin. All class, those were easy. It was on the rogues that Dalton earned McLaughlin's respect.
"You'd watch them fall down and get back up and Bernie's still sitting in the middle of their backs, like, 'OK, let's go,' " McLaughlin said. "Always smiling. It was incredible."
McLaughlin has a way of stretching a word when he means it, incredible lasted minutes.
McLaughlin eventually lost Dalton to steeplechasing. Well, McLaughlin lost him to Kate Fitzpatrick first. She brought her future husband to Camden, S.C. to break babies in the winter. It wasn't Dubai or Florida, but it was different, a new place and an open door to the world Dalton had left back in England. In Camden, Dalton began jumping again, just schooling for the little guys, popping horses around the logs in the infield, the baby hurdles and then eventually over the real hurdles. When Winky Cocks couldn't find a rider for veteran hurdler Niello, Dalton stepped up.
"He couldn't get a jockey he was happy with," Dalton said. "I was schooling the horse, I liked the horse. I said, 'You know, I'll ride the horse Mr. Wink if you want me to.' I've been very lucky ever since."
Dalton began as an amateur, eventually turned professional and guided Pierrot Lunaire to two Grade 1 wins last year and a championship. He and Kate engineered an upset at Saratoga last summer when Cat Feathers took a filly and mare hurdle stakes and they'll aim to win the final steeplechase stakes of the meet next week.
When Sheppard called Dalton to see if he was open in the A.P. Smithwick earlier in the meet, Dalton knew what to do.
"Mr. Sheppard calls you, you say, 'Yes sir. Thank you,' " Dalton said. "You don't need to know any more."
Sheppard put Dalton on Italian Wedding. The veteran brushed off a 15-month layoff to finish second in the Smithwick. Three weeks later, they won the Turf Writers.
"Mr. Sheppard said to me, 'You're nearly as old as me.' I said, 'Think of all the experiences we have,' " Dalton said. "It's fantastic. I had a thrill of a lifetime last year, winning on Cat Feathers. I didn't expect to win another race at Saratoga. To win a Grade 1, that's a real bonus. It's an absolute thrill. I feel like I'm 12 again."
Not bad for 45.