The inaugural journey for a jockey in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) carries a host of additional pressures. So many years of grinding it out day after day have passed to get a shot at glory in one of the world's premier races, so the weight is heavy to get it right. Who knows when the next opportunity will come, or if it will?
Joe Rocco Jr. is one of five riders who will make their first break from the Kentucky Derby starting gate May 3, but the moment doesn't intimidate him. After watching his firstborn son endure six heart surgeries—four of them open heart procedures—to repair a heart defect five years ago, he has a different perspective on what's most important.
"People talk about the added pressure, but it is the good kind of pressure," said the 31-year-old rider who grew up immersed in the world of Thoroughbred racing. "Of course I want to win the Kentucky Derby and ride a great race but at the end of the day, I get to go home to my son and that is what matters. He is alive and healthy."
Brodie Rocco, now 5, has all his surgeries behind him and can look forward to a long, healthy life antagonizing his younger brother Luke, 2. The boys are part of a large cheering squad supporting their father's first start in the Derby aboard Twin Creeks Racing Stable and WinStar Farm's Vinceremos.
Joe Rocco Jr.'s father has been a jockey since the mid-1970s. His mother, Debora, was a trainer and is the daughter of Baden Hughes, a recently retired trainer who once worked for "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons and managed the farm of breeder Hugh O'Donovan. The parents of Rocco's wife, Jamie, are in the business, too, operating a small farm off of State Road 200 near Ocala, Fla.
Being a jockey is all Rocco said he ever wanted to do. When it came time to ride in his first race Feb. 2, 1999, at Tampa Bay Downs, his father was there to get him started right. Rocco won his race, a $6,800 claiming race on board the favorite Rainbow's Rajab, who was trained by Sam Cronk. Rocco had been working for Cronk since he was 15. On the same card, his father rode two other winners.
"That year, my Dad basically walked away from all his business at Laurel and came to Tampa just help me start riding," the junior Rocco said. "My father, my mother, my grandfather provided me a lot of support in the beginning."
Rocco started out riding primarily in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. They would go south to Tampa in the winters until Brodie was born. When his heart defect was discovered, the Roccos had to stay in the Mid-Atlantic region, near the hospital. By the time Brodie turned 2, the surgeries were done and the family had more options.
They decided to make Kentucky their home base but travel to Miami in the winter for four months out of the year and go to Saratoga Race Course for seven weeks. By concentrating on these circuits, Rocco said he puts himself in a better position to get mounts that have the most potential to show up in the Kentucky Derby.
"You have to be at the right place at the right time and be in the inner circle of trainers that get to this level," he said. "Over the years I've ridden some horses for Todd (Pletcher). I'm lucky that Vinceremos was open, that Todd believed in me, and the owners wanted me."
Vinceremos' connections were familiar with Rocco because he had been a successful pilot in 2013 for a WinStar runner named General Election, who was being trained by Kellyn Gorder. Rocco won Arlington Classic Stakes (gr. III) and the Jefferson Cup Stakes (gr. III) and finished second in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. III) on the son of Harlan's Holiday.
"Vinceremos was the only one open for the Derby, so we put our name in the hat and showed we wanted to ride him," Rocco said. "The day he worked (April 27) they had not made a commitment yet. I saw the owner and visited with them, went to breeze a horse, and then my agent found me and said I could ride the horse."
"You know, it is not easy to get here," Rocco continued. "I've been riding for 15 years and I feel like I'm just starting. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence. You have to consistently show up and do a good job."
And what advice does Rocco's family have as he readies to make his first Kentucky Derby start along with fellow first-time riders Corey Lanerie, brothers Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz, and Ricardo Santana?
"To have a mount in the race is an accomplishment in itself," Rocco said. "Everyone is psyched. As for advice? My parents have said to have fun."