Robert Colton

Robert Colton

Tom Cooley

Inside Track: Colton Riding for 4,000

To say that Robert Colton is back in the saddle is misleading, since he never left.

To say that Robert Colton is back in the saddle could be slightly misleading, since he never really left. The 51-year-old jockey has been galloping horses since he stopped race riding in 2002, but now he’s donning silks in an attempt to reach a specific milestone. Colton wants to ride 4,000 winners.

The jockey said he must score just 17 times to get his 4,000th victory, an accomplishment only 52 riders have managed to attain. Seventeen wins seems like a small number, but the task will not be a simple one after seven years away from the jocks’ room. Still, Colton has a solid trainer behind him and he’s already tackled the most important step—getting back in the irons and scoring his first win.

“I wouldn’t call it a comeback,” said the jockey. “It’s more of a ‘brief-back.’ At my age, I’m not going to go out there and be leading rider. The odds of that happening are slim, but if I can get those 17 wins under my belt that would be a big accomplishment.”

And Colton is back to his winning ways, scoring his first since Aug. 28, 2002, when he rode the 3-year-old Vindication filly Sentebale to victory for trainer Tim Ritchey, Blaze of Glory Stable, and Carol Zacney at Oaklawn Park March 8.

“I get on this filly a lot and she’s worked outstanding in the mornings,” the jockey said of the Kentucky-bred runner. “Tim’s just been pulling his hair out as to why she hadn’t won her maiden. The post position (five) and the way the race set up were perfect for her. Tim and I handpicked the spot and the race went really good; I didn’t get tired at all.”

Colton began his association with Ritchey about 15 years ago, and it was Ritchey who inspired him to make a return to racing.

“He’d ridden for me on and off, and when I saw him galloping at Delaware last year, he came back to work for me as an exercise rider,” said the trainer. “He was breezing more and more horses for me and he looked so good on a horse that I said, ‘Look, I’ll put you on 17 winners somewhere along the line. Why don’t you come back and shoot for 4,000?’ ”

At Oaklawn this winer, Colton stayed with Ritchey and began a diet and exercise regimen to lose the extra weight he’d picked up during work on the movie Seabiscuit and a tenure with the Jockeys’ Guild.

“I locked the ‘fridge’ and padlocked the cupboards, and he got his weight down better than it was five years ago,” Ritchey said.

“When I was working for the Guild, I probably got up to weighing in the mid (one hundred) 40s,” said Colton. “Tim said, ‘You’re gonna lose it.’ When I got here in December, I weighed about 132, and by the end of January, I walked into the room weighing 118.”

Colton, a California native who began riding in Washington in 1976, shifted his tack to the East Coast in the early 1980s and found great success there. He rode mostly at Penn National, Delaware Park, and Philadelphia Park, setting a single-season record for number of wins (225) at the latter track that stood for several years. He earned one of his most significant victories for Ritchey aboard Goodfellas Stables’ Smart Guy in the 1999 edition of the $300,000 Pennsylvania Derby (gr. III).

“He’s such a good rider,” Ritchey said. “He can tell you something when he comes back, and we have a good relationship. Since he gets on my horses in the mornings, he knows their tendencies, and that helps a lot because I don’t have to try to explain their quirks to him. That can make a difference between winning and losing a race.”

Even with just a handful of wins to earn before he hits that career milestone, Colton said he wouldn’t mind picking up a few more past the 4,000 mark.

“We’ll see what the summer brings,” he said. “Right now, financially, it’s a great time to be a jockey. In the past 10 years 35% less riders have been licensed in the U.S., but they’re racing for 75% more money, which is only going upwards due to slots revenue. I don’t see myself riding for an extended period of time, but as long as I can stay healthy and as long as I’m enjoying myself—which I am—what could be better?”