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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM

In Belmont Stakes, Albarado out to restore reputation

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Robby Albarado has regrets, but who doesn’t? His mounts once earned nearly $20 million in a year, but at age 39 he is no longer among the national riding leaders, a fact partly attributable, by his own admission, to mistakes he made.

Those mistakes – back-to-back domestic-violence charges − brought him legal problems and embarrassment, not to mention a major slowdown in his riding business. They are part of his personal history. Yet, with every day, they move further into the past while Albarado is doing all he can to atone.

“I know who I am,” Albarado said in a recent interview just outside the jockeys’ quarters at Churchill Downs, his longtime base. “My true friends, my kids, they know who I am. Until enough time passes that other people can know that for themselves, I’ve got to be content with knowing in my heart that I’m a good person. There’s really nothing else I can do except show people every day that that’s true.”

As the 145th Belmont Stakes approaches, Albarado is working quietly but diligently to restore his reputation to where it once was, when he was widely acclaimed as the regular rider of Mineshaft, the 2003 Horse of the Year, and Curlin, the 2007-08 Horse of the Year. Albarado will ride Golden Soul in the June 8 Belmont, a race that offers a return to an international spotlight that eluded him a little more than two years ago when he was replaced the day before Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with John Velazquez aboard for Team Valor International.

“That one hurt bad,” he said.

Albarado lost the mount after suffering a broken nose and other facial injuries when kicked by a horse in a post-parade accident at Churchill several days before the Derby. Velazquez, who became available only after the scratch of morning-line favorite Uncle Mo, was named by Team Valor president Barry Irwin to replace Albarado, who was sufficiently healthy to win the Grade 1 Humana Distaff aboard Sassy Image on the Derby undercard.

“That was the hard part,” he said. “Showing I could ride and still being named off.”

The pain of losing a Derby-winning ride, however, was markedly different from what he and his then-wife, Kimber, had suffered just weeks beforehand in a much-publicized domestic incident that led to a divorce and to Albarado being dragged into court.

The events at the Albarado household in the Lake Forest neighborhood of Louisville on the night of March 31, 2011, led Kimber to file domestic-violence charges against Robby. According to the police, Kimber had strangulation marks around her neck but declined medical treatment. She eventually dropped the charges and an emergency protective order less than three weeks later. About two weeks after the charges were dropped, Albarado lost the Derby mount on Animal Kingdom.

Fast forward one year − on the morning of the Kentucky Oaks, May 4, 2012, Albarado was arrested again on domestic-violence charges made by then-girlfriend Carolina Martinez in what later was described in court as a pushing-and-shoving brouhaha involving a cell phone. Martinez was treated for an injured shoulder and bruising to her legs, according to the police.

Virtually all of Albarado’s friends and business associates quickly distanced themselves from him – his agent, Lenny Pike Jr., stepped aside after 16 years of representing Albarado – and he was suspended indefinitely by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission until the matter could be legally addressed. After securing an injunction, he was allowed to resume riding June 1, 2012, at Arlington Park.

To this day, Albarado stands guilty of fourth-degree assault from the second domestic incident, with the only penalty a $500 fine. Albarado, through his attorneys, has had the verdict under appeal since a decision was rendered by a jury in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville on July 12, 2012. Marc Guilfoil, the KHRC’s deputy executive commissioner, said in an e-mail that once a decision is made on the appeal Albarado will be required to appear before the licensing review panel.

In the meantime, he has been cleared to ride in all jurisdictions, including Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, and wherever he has applied.

The most damning part, of course, has been the stigma. Albarado has heard and read it all: wife-beater, abuser, bully, and worse. He says he believes that both incidents were blown out of proportion, especially by the media and by uninformed people, and that he was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion before being able to prove his innocence. He says no punches were thrown, no overt violence perpetrated, no knife or gun produced, that no one’s life was seriously threatened, “nothing even remotely close,” he said, and that his status as a wealthy, well-known jockey made him an inviting target.

At the same time, Albarado said he recognizes the letter of the law − that in fact bodily contact was made, that it was within the rights of the women to press charges, and that his best response is to be contrite and open about it. He is aware that any pleas for forgiveness from the public are apt to be met with scorn, not sympathy.

“The bottom line is, yes, my actions were wrong,” he said. “But I can honestly say that I have never, ever hit a woman in my life. Not then, not now. Never.

“It’s all in the past now. I can only let time prove that the negative perceptions of me as a person are wrong.”

Albarado completed court-ordered alcohol and anger-management classes, and perhaps more important, he has taken the initiative to make what he described as “important changes” in his lifestyle, ones that diminish the chances of such ugly incidents occurring again.

“Now I think further ahead about where I’m going and who I’m going with, knowing that people are watching me and maybe wanting me to mess up again,” he said. “I’ve got different friends, different places I go. Right now I have to be as private as I can. And I’m a lot more prioritized with my kids than I ever was.”

Albarado shares custody of his three children – ages 12, 9, and 6 – with Kimber. They live within minutes of each other in the Lake Forest area. Kimber did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.

Albarado said he also has been in a committed relationship for more than a year with a young woman who lives about an hour away in Lexington.

Albarado said his overall attitude is upbeat because “pain, for everyone, is inevitable. Misery is optional. I’m not the kind of person to let pain keep me down for very long.”

Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Golden Soul and a longtime friend of Albarado’s, is a big supporter.

“We all deal with ‘today,’ ” Stewart said. “I’ve been around Robby a long time – and his kids since they were born. They were all over at my house the other night. They love their dad very much, and he’s going to be there for them. I’m very hopeful for him, and that doesn’t have anything to do with riding a horse. Like anybody else, you just try to figure things out as you go.”

Mark Bacon, a horse owner described by Albarado as his closest personal friend, said he strongly believes the jockey has been pro-active in trying to become a prominent citizen again.

“Robby has admittedly made some mistakes,” Bacon said. “But I hope he continues to rebuild his character and can focus on being the world-class jockey we all know he is.”

Albarado’s personal life in the last couple of years not only has relegated his riding feats into a distant background, but also his charitable deeds. Funding sources for the Robby Albarado Foundation – which has distributed about $150,000 to the families of needy children in Louisville since its 2007 founding, according to Brad Moore, treasurer of the foundation – abruptly dried up in the wake of all the negativity.

“That’s what makes me feel the worst about the fallout from all this,” he said. “The kids aren’t getting my help any longer. I’d like to turn that back around real soon. I have a real passion for that and I’m very proud of it.”

As for his career, the ride on Golden Soul was lauded as perhaps the savviest of the Derby. Albarado saved ground, avoided trouble, and finished strongly, with Golden Soul outrunning his 34-1 odds in finishing second to Orb.

It was the kind of ride to be expected from someone who has built an extraordinary career since he began riding horses at age 12 in the Louisiana bayou. In nearly 23 years, Albarado has won more than 4,500 races, with his mounts earning more than $180 million. His résumé includes victories aboard Curlin in the Preakness (2007), Breeders’ Cup Classic (2007), and Dubai World Cup (2008); the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Award (2004); and two years when his mount earnings were second-most in North America ($19.3 million in 2007 and $14.2 million in 2008).

By comparison, his mount earnings in 2012 were $4.5 million, his lowest total since his career arc was still ascending in 1995.

Naturally, Albarado continues to want to ride in the Triple Crown series, the Breeders’ Cup, and as many major events as possible while also acknowledging that it will take time for more horsemen and fans to warm up to him again. A big run from Golden Soul in the Belmont next Saturday could help toward his goals.

“I’m just out here trying to do the very best I can with my life,” he said. “It’s all any of us can do.”

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