Wednesday, October 21, 2009

James Graham

It was my third trip to Arlington Park. I'd decided to bring my wife; the last two visits I'd walked home with $300 and a new pair of jeans (long story). We hopped on the Metra, leaving the city for the cultural morass of the suburbs. We did this on the promise (my promise) of a bucolic oval that handed out money. Eight races and eighty dollars later I felt the panic (as you continue going to the oval, the panic matures into a dread). I had one race left to make this right. James Graham had already notched a riding triple and later I would learn he was streaky like this. He was an aggressive rider, though not a reckless one, that seized on his opportunities and squeezed them for as long as he could. He had a mount in the last race, a long shot. I went $5 cold on an exacta of his longshot over a horse Robby Albarado was riding. It was a photo, but he got there ahead of Albarado. He saved my day. We went down to the winner's circle and thanked the horse and Graham then got the hell out of there.

This past year in the absence of Rene Douglas it seemed time for Graham to emerge as the colony leader. But Junior Alvarado wouldn't have this. Day after day Graham had the livest mounts and the most mounts. But it wasn't enough. The jockey's title came down to the last day, but Alvarado had won two early sealing the honor. The last race of the 09 meet was on the turf -- a surface James has owned. Even though Graham no longer had a shot at eclipsing the rising Alvarado, he rode a heavily favored Christine Janks horse and was gunning everyone down in the stretch ready to go out with a bang, when from out of the clouds comes Alvarado on a longshot tearing down the lane. Graham's horse was swallowed in the final furlong. It was brutal. It was powerful. On his surface and not even for the title, just for consolation. While I was elated for Alvarado, I knew this was a twist of the knife and it was hard not to feel a little something for the Irishman.

Graham went to jockey school in Ireland and upon graduation had the honor of mucking stalls for Tim Oxx, whose worldwide celebrity has ascended cosmically thanks to his amazing colt Sea the Stars. Graham saw little opportunity in the Emerald Isle and landed in Michigan, at Canterbury. He won his first race and started cultivating the connections a jockeys needs to make if he doesn't want to muck the stalls of the greats. He met and later married the assistant trainer of Jeff Thornbury, a very successful trainer. He and his wife now own a small barn in Lexington. He moved his tack from Michigan to Chicago and also took aim at Keeneland. Up until last week, he'd won only one Graded Stake there and that was the Sycamore in 08(this year's iteration is tomorrow). During the winter he rides at Fair Grounds and has quietly learned a lot riding with Robby Albarado on that long stretch there. In what seemed a pivotal moment he earned the mount on a Triple Crown threat from Chicago named Giant Oak after Edgar Prado decided not to travel for the race. He was quoted as saying this was his big shot and he didn't want to blow it. I was cheering madly for him, but the sogged track and a dominating performance from Friesan Fire showed it wasn't meant to be. No Derby mount for Graham.

At FallStars weekend there were a few Arlington jocks heading to Lexington. It was smart, the polytrack experience has proved an edge and the AP form has translated nicely there. Alvarado and Graham both had riding doubles, only Graham did it on 20-1and 40-1 steeds and with only a handful of mounts. So after an underperformance at Arlington where it seemed the riding title was served to him on a silver platter, Graham showed his grit and turned many heads at Keeneland. Two of the most recent heads were those of Edgar Prado and Kent Desormeaux, the two jocks he passed at the top of the stretch in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. One of the most propitious holes I'd ever seen had opened before him at the turn and he gunned it, but this hole had opened early and he was all in. I stood up and begged his mount Hot Cha Cha to hold the other fillies off, and she did, winning by two and earning Graham and the filly's connections their maiden GI. My wife and I cheered from our living room.

So the railbird congratulates him on his tenacity and grit; his ability to save the day on a longshot.


  1. Once again, a beautiful watercolor.

  2. Now that I know that the Chicago Railbird does his own watercoloring, I am going to be a consistent reader...nice work

  3. I hope Junior Alvarado doesn't name his kid "Junior".

    I'm confused with Roberto Alvarado and Robbie Albarado as it is.

    Imagine Junior Alvarado jr. riding against those guys? ugh! :D

  4. Although a nice article you have your facts wrong. Not only did James muck stalls for JOHN Oxx he also galloped some of his nicest horses. James came to the States in 2002 WITH his now wife, Lisa, who he was dating BEFORE leaving Ireland. James and Lisa arrived in October 2002 to Arlington Park and have never been based at Canterbury Park (although James has shipped in to ride there and Lisa sends horses there to run during the summer months). They do NOT have a barn in Lexington, KY. Although James admires Robby Albarado he has said time and time again that it was Calvin Borel who has taught him what he knows (this part you have right, hard work and honest riding!). Again, a nice article and a great watercolor but story was not entirely right...

  5. Thanks for the close read. you clearly know a lot, and your comments are greatly appreciated.

    Now the point by point, and you win quite a few my dear anonymous. I don't see the contradictions you see with his galloping for Oxx in Ireland and dating his wife while still living in Ireland -- he was married in the states (though it does say "met" in the blog so point for anonymous). He, in fact, did muck stalls and groom for Oxx as well as exercise horses. The article does seem to infer he was based in Canterbury where he won his first stakes race, which is misleading. The point being he worked the Illinois and even Michigan circuit (still, point for you a.). Curses!

    If you read Graham's Keeneland bio, he praises Albarado for mentoring, especially teaching him how to capitalize on other's mistakes, though Borel also gets mention. No points for you! Snicker snicker.

    One thing you might have found is the property in Lexington. I have that written in my notes but can't confirm right now. I believe he owns a farmhouse there, but I'll look into it.

    Thanks a lot for reading and I hope you enjoy the blog. I try to get my facts straight, but there will be errors -- a shameful amount I'm afraid. I don't employ a fact-checker so you've been very helpful.