Rajiv Maragh can see the Alabama already.
Music Note and Proud Spell knock heads, Little Belle picks up the pieces and wins.
“They attack each other, and something’s got to give,” he said while relaxing in the backyard of the jockey’s quarters at Saratoga Race Course on Thursday. “I know those horses are great, but great horses get beat. Music Note demolished me last time, but it’s a lot different race when you’re under pressure. I don’t think Proud Spell can beat me.”
Maragh — “Raj” to his buddies in the jock’s room — says this without sounding like a braggart. He was looking forward, visualizing how one of the most prestigious races for 3-year-old fillies in the country will play out on Aug. 16 with the confidence you have to have to survive in the Saratoga riding colony. Perhaps the 23-year-old Jamaican’s greatest strength, though, is his ability to look backwards.
One of many native Jamaicans of Indian descent, Maragh is known for diligently studying past races and using that preparation to inform his decisions on the track. In his first full year based in New York, he is 12th in the nation in earnings, and finished third at the Belmont Park spring/summer meet with 52 winners. He had three winners on Wednesday’s card to punch some life into a slow start to the Saratoga meet.
“Put it this way, I try to win one a day, at least,” he said. “That accumulates to a lot more than I’m probably going to win, but that’s a good way to put yourself in it, and have a goal and try to reach it.
“It’s incredibly tough, because it’s the biggest names from Kentucky and New York and
everything. The fact that I had a very successful Belmont meet has helped me get on some decent horses for Saratoga. The toughest part is, because it’s my first year here, you have to prove yourself. It’s like starting over on a new page. This is where you make a name for yourself.”
Maragh’s family moved to Florida from Jamaica, where his father, Collin, was a jockey and trainer, when Rajiv was 13. By then, he had known “since I was a little toddler” that he was going to be a jockey, which drew some quizzical looks from his classmates at McArthur High in Hollywood.
“The teacher would say, ‘What do you want to be?’ and the kids would say, ‘Doctor, fireman,’ and I said, ‘Jockey,’ ” he said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean, jockey?’ It’s so funny that I was the one who had that dream that actually came true.”
Even as a youngster, Maragh stuck to a sensible diet and got in the practice of maintaining his weight at a specific level.
After starting as a jockey in Florida, he quickly established himself and was able to gain a foothold at Monmouth Park.
Last fall, he didn’t have any mounts on Breeders’ Cup Day at the New Jersey track, so he rode the Aqueduct card.
He decided to give New York a go full-time for the winter with agent Roger Sutton, and flourished for a variety of trainers like Bruce Levine, Gary Contessa, Tom Bush and Rick Violette.
Along the way, he picked up some serious stakes horses, none more prominent than Little Belle, who won the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland at odds of 16-1.
“The purse structure attracted me to New York,” Maragh said. “Financially, it looked like it could be a good move for me. I said if I can suck up the cold weather, it might be better for the future. Test it out one year, and see what happened.”
Maragh knows better than to take anything for granted.
He won two straight Grade II’s for Contessa on Rite Moment, then lost the mount for today’s Honorable Miss after two straight losses.
After the surprising Ashland win, he came in second twice on Little Belle, to Proud Spell in the Kentucky Oaks and to Music Note in the Coaching Club America Oaks.
He believes the Ashland stamped his filly as one to fear, though.
“That day, nobody really knew who Little Belle was, and nobody really knew who Rajiv Maragh was in Kentucky,” he said. “It was amazing, because at that time, the talk about the Keeneland Polytrack was that you can’t go wire-to-wire. So when the gate opened, everybody was waiting, pulling their horses back, and I just took a shot at it and went to the lead. Maybe if I get an easy lead, I can get her to the wire first or get some kind of place, for a Grade I. She just kept on going. She got really strong on the lead, and no one could get by her. Bsharpsonata put a head in front, and she just dug in and said, ‘You ain’t beating me today.’ ”
Maragh might not be riding a lot of favorites right now, but this is certain — he will have done his homework on the competition each time he rides.
He’ll have to, because there’s a good chance they’ve done their homework on him, too.
“I think a strength that I have is putting a lot of extra effort into paying attention to stuff that doesn’t concern only me,” he said. “I can remember a horse that ran two weeks ago that I didn’t even ride in the race. I remember it exactly. I have a good horse memory. I can’t remember anything else in my life. I can’t remember to take out the garbage, but I remember every horse.”
The interview almost over, Maragh accepted a quick congratulations for his three-win day from fellow jockey Javier Castellano as he walked by. As an afterthought, Castellano noticed that Maragh happened to have a gold No. 3 stitched to the sleeve of his royal blue polo shirt.
“Oh, yeah, I didn’t even realize that,” Maragh said, laughing.
Be sharp now, Rajiv. These guys don’t miss anything.
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