Luis Quinonez planned to attend the Kentucky Derby post-position draw, but the jockey didn’t make it to Churchill Downs in time for Wednesday’s event. “I got caught in traffic,’’ he said. “It’s really bad here.’’
After being slowed by Louisville’s automotive gridlock, Quinonez will take on the equine version Saturday when he makes his Kentucky Derby debut at age 49. The five-time riding champion at Shakopee’s Canterbury Park will ride Suddenbreakingnews, a 20-1 longshot in the 20-horse field. It takes a cool head and steady hand to navigate the traffic charging around the oval at Churchill Downs, but Quinonez knows how to wait patiently for an opportunity.
In 1993, Quinonez rode a horse named Ragtime Rebel during the Derby prep season, then was replaced by a more experienced jockey for the big race. He didn’t get another shot at the Kentucky Derby until piloting Suddenbreakingnews through a strong campaign this spring. The horse won February’s Southwest Stakes and locked up a place in the Kentucky Derby with a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby on April 16.
The bay gelding, who has finished first or second in seven of eight career races, is a long-striding closer with a big late kick. Suddenbreakingnews has handled large fields before with his intelligence and professionalism — much like his rider, who enters his first Derby after 3,570 victories in 24,270 career races.
“I feel very humbled and appreciative to be in this kind of a race,’’ said Quinonez, a native of Sinaloa, Mexico. “I can’t even describe how it feels. It’s the pinnacle of horse racing. And not just to ride the race, but to ride a horse I think has a chance.’’
Quinonez began his career in 1989 and built his reputation at Canterbury Park. He has won 548 races there — fifth-most in track history — and is a member of Canterbury’s hall of fame.
A resident of Jones, Okla., Quinonez was Canterbury’s champion jockey in each of its first five seasons after its 1995 reopening. He now rides mostly at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Remington Park in Oklahoma and Lone Star Park in Texas, with the occasional appearance at Canterbury for a stakes race.
Quinonez has ridden Suddenbreakingnews in all eight of the gelding’s starts, guiding him to $670,032 in earnings. Trainer Donnie Von Hemel has teamed with Quinonez for 20 years, a partnership that has produced 202 victories, and values the jockey’s patience and experience.
“Luis has a good, level head,’’ Von Hemel said. “He can tell you a lot about a horse. He’s always been known as a strong finisher, which fits well with this horse. This race won’t be too big for him.’’
Quinonez said Suddenbreakingnews showed good potential as a 2-year-old and has blossomed this spring, growing stronger while remaining gentle and sensible. The horse has the pedigree for the Derby’s 1 ¼-mile distance, and Quinonez is hoping he can replicate his performance in the Southwest Stakes, when Suddenbreakingnews rallied from last in a 14-horse field to win by nearly three lengths.
Though Quinonez never has ridden in the Derby, he rode at Churchill Downs last year, including three races on Derby day. He’s enjoyed the bustle and hype of Derby week, and his wife, Gedda, and four children arrived Friday in Louisville to share the experience.
He isn’t nervous, not even at the prospect of navigating a late-running horse through that daunting Derby traffic. Quinonez is looking for a trip as fortuitous as the one that brought him to this day, via a slow lane through Minnesota.
“You just hope everything goes right and you get some good luck,’’ he said. “I’m very excited and very thankful for all the support, and for this chance.’’