The only experience Tyler Gaffalione has had with the first leg of the Triple Crown has been watching the Louisville classic on television. That's about to change May 6, as the Eclipse Award-winning jockey has the call on the Todd Pletcher-trained Patch in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
"It really hasn't hit me yet. I'm just looking forward to the whole experience," Gaffalione said with no hint of first-time nerves in his voice. "I've never actually been to a Derby. I've always watched them on TV, but it seems so special.
"I've heard comments from other riders saying that you just get caught up in the moment. It's like another race and as soon as you walk out on the track and they play 'My Old Kentucky Home' that it really hits you then."
While he's never been to Churchill Downs on Derby day, the Florida native and third-generation jockey has ridden under the Twin Spires before. Last year he made the trip up from his South Florida base and rode in two stakes at the end of October, finishing fourth and seventh.
The venue isn't new for Gaffalione, but the ride will be. Lining up for the most well-known race in the country and facing the 20-horse field may seem daunting, but not much fazes him and he's relishing the new experience.
Growing up in a family that has a passion for racing, Gaffalione was destined to be a jockey. His father, Steve Gaffalione, won more than 800 races and guided Storm Predictions and Bold Circle to graded stakes wins. His grandfather, Robert Gaffalione, had more than 300 wins in his career.
After dabbling in barrel racing when he was younger, Gaffalione started working the sales in Ocala when the racing bug bit him. Although he was galloping horses in the mornings, Gaffalione said his family encouraged him to finish high school, something that he is thankful for today.
"It let my body mature and my mind mature," Gaffalione said. "When I was 19 I started riding races professionally at Gulfstream and we (with former agent Walter Blum Jr.) had a lot of success early on. I'm very fortunate with the opportunities that I've been given, and I got to ride some really nice horses."
Gaffalione won the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice in 2015, a year in which he racked up 217 wins and more than $5.8 million in earnings. Last year he accumulated more than $6.4 million with 208 wins, and he switched to agent Matt Muzikar, who previously worked with a number of top jockeys, including Javier Castellano, Joe Bravo, and Shaun Bridgmohan, among others. So far this year, he's found the winner's circle 87 times. Hoping to add to that tally Saturday, Gaffalione likes his chances with his unique one-eyed mount.
"I'm really excited about him. He seems like a really promising colt. He's so young and he's only had three starts under his belt, but it seems like every race he is improving, I think the added distance is going to be key for him," the jockey said of the Calumet Farm homebred, who punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby with a second-place finish in the April 1 TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2). "Look at his pedigree. (By) Union Rags —a Belmont Stakes (G1) winner—out of an A. P. Indy mare. I think he's in the right direction right now. Todd Pletcher does a great job with all of his horses. I'm just thankful for the opportunity."
Aboard for the runner-up effort last time out, Gaffalione said he doesn't think Patch's missing eye will be a problem in the Derby.
"He seems like a really straightforward horse," he said. "(In the Louisiana Derby) I had the rail position and he went in between horses and went back to the fence. He's real tactical, basically you can't even tell that he has one eye. He just goes out there and does his thing.
"I actually didn't even know (about his one eye) until I came back after the last race. They didn't tell me in the paddock and it's not the first thing you look at."
Although the jockey may have not noticed Patch's missing eye, there is little else that gets by him, according to his agent.
"It's really nice working with Tyler, because he's not immature and he has a great head on his shoulders," Muzikar said. "He's a very, very smart kid. He's aware of his surroundings, on and off the racetrack. He's always willing to learn, he's always trying to get better, he critiques himself, (and) he's his own biggest critic. ... And that can only make him a better rider and a better person."
While Gaffalione is about to jump into the unknown Saturday, Muzikar isn't concerned and said the jockey always comes to the paddock prepared and mentally settled.
"He has the makeup of a very good rider, but he's a great kid," Muzikar said. "And most importantly, he's unflappable. Not much gets to him. For a kid who just turned 22 years old, I think that says a lot about him and what is there for him in the future."
In studying for his biggest test to date, Gaffalione has been watching the works, watching replays, analyzing rider habits, and anything else he can use to his advantage when the gates spring open.
"When the gates open in a 20-horse field, you never know what could happen, so you just try to prepare as much as you can," he said. "Sometimes it works out as planned, sometimes you've got to go to plan B."