(Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association)
Ronald Ardoin is the seventh thoroughbred jockey to be honored with induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. His path, however, is different than the other modern-era jockeys who have reached the pinnacle in their home state.
While Eddie Delahoussaye had his biggest successes in California, Mark Guidry in Illinois and Craig Perret and Randy Romero in Kentucky and beyond, Ardoin kept his tack either within his home state or just a short drive away.
"I don't think there's another rider from Louisiana who's won as many races in the state as I have," Ardoin said.
Just how much has Louisiana been a part of Ardoin's career? Of his 5,226 career wins in 30 years as a jockey, more than 90 percent came at five Louisiana tracks.
And those numbers doesn't include the 500 or so races Ardoin estimated he won riding at Louisiana's bush tracks from the time he was 7 until he was old enough to get his jockey's license at age 16.
"It was something that I loved at an early age," said Ardoin. "The love of the horses was always there."
Born in Carencro and a resident of Haughton for nearly four decades, Ardoin won six riding titles at Louisiana Downs and six more at Fair Grounds. At one time or another, he was the all-time leader in victories at Louisiana Downs, Fair Grounds and Lone Star Park.
His first win would come in 1973 at Delta Downs in Vinton, La., aboard a filly named Miss Compla Bid. Four decades later, he remembers the details like it was yesterday.
"It was a pick-up mount for (trainer) Lee Young," Ardoin recalled. "I picked up the horse as part of an injury (to another jockey) and she won."
Page 2 of 4 - After getting his feet wet in his home state, Ardoin tried the mid-Atlantic circuit for a short time, riding at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland and Atlantic City in New Jersey.
"I did well at Pimlico and New Jersey," Ardoin said. "There's not too many places I didn't go to ride a stakes (race)."
In the early 1980s, he had an opportunity to head to Kentucky.
"(Jockey agent) Bud Aime wanted me to go to Keeneland with him, and I turned him down," Ardoin said. "That's when he took Randy Romero with him. The rest is history, and Randy went on to do great things. I never regretted a minute of it – staying here and riding in Louisiana."
Ardoin would dominate the Louisiana circuit for the better part of the next 15 years, including a stretch of four consecutive riding titles at Fair Grounds from 1993-96. In a 17-year span from 1982-98, he topped the 200-win mark 14 times.
Ardoin is one of five Louisiana natives – along with Delahoussaye, Guidry, Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel – to win 5,000 career races. He became the 16th jockey in North American racing to reach the 5,000-win plateau on Aug. 20, 2000, when he booted home Heart of an Angel at Louisiana Downs.
Perhaps not coincidentally, two of Ardoin's biggest career wins came on the backs of two of the best thoroughbreds to be bred in Louisiana, in graded stakes races barely a month apart in 1996.
In March of that year, Ardoin was aboard Scott's Scoundrel in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds. Scott's Scoundrel would go on to be the first state-bred to win $1 million in his career.
"Scott's Scoundrel was a very, very good Louisiana-bred horse who proved himself in open company," Ardoin said. "Scott was a tough little horse and did most of it in Louisiana."
Five weeks later, Ardoin rode Zarb's Magic to an upset win at odds of 11-1 in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Page 3 of 4 - "We dropped to the rail, saved ground every step of the way and held off Grindstone," Ardoin said. "It was a matter of getting the trip."
That victory punched a ticket for both horse and jockey into the Kentucky Derby. Ironically, the horse that Zarb's Magic held off, Grindstone, would win the "Run for the Roses," while Zarb's Magic finished 13th.
"In horse racing, luck plays a lot of it," Ardoin said. "That day when I beat Grindstone in the Arkansas Derby, I got … the right trip and Grindstone didn't. In the (Kentucky) Derby, I followed Grindstone. We both got the trip, but his horse was just the better horse that day. Really no excuses."
Zarb's Magic was actually Ardoin's second Kentucky Derby mount. Eleven years earlier, he rode Encolure on the first Saturday in May.
"Encolure was a very nice horse," he said. "The distance was his limitation. It was a great experience being the first Derby I rode. I learned a lot about being in the Derby."
Horse racing gets the national spotlight a few days a year, like Kentucky Derby day, but the sport's activity goes on every day, whether it's morning workouts or afternoon and evening races. Ardoin understood the day-in, day-out effort of the sport as much as anyone.
"Every winner was special to me," he said. "I didn't care if it was a $5,000 maiden race or the $500,000 Arkansas Derby. It's the thrill of victory; I got 'em again. They're all special to me."
Said his daughter, Natalie Glyshaw: "That's what he always wanted to do – be on top, winning races."
Since a wrist injury forced his retirement from the saddle 10 years ago, Ardoin has remained in the sport as a jockey agent, spending mornings on the backstretch booking mounts for his clients like Lonnie Meche, Don Simington, Tim Doocy and Chris Rosier.
Page 4 of 4 - "It's fun at times, but it's like being a jockey – there's a lot of stress," Ardoin said. "If I knew it was this hard being an agent, I'd have given (his former agent, the late Jerry Harrison) 50 percent.
"It's trying to make the right decision for the jockey. It's a lot of fun, being with the same (horsemen) I've been with for a lot of years."
The differences in 40 years of being a part of the game? The money, Ardoin said. The total purse for his first win as a rider was $1,200. Meanwhile, at the same track, his client Rosier accumulated more than $2 million in purse earnings during a 95-win season last winter.
Ardoin is a member of a pair of racing halls of fame, at Fair Grounds and Lone Star Park. On June 29, he will join an elite group of his home state's greatest athletes, in all sports.
"The first thought was kind of shock," Ardoin said of his upcoming honor. "That's something I never thought would happen. It's a great honor. When I started, I never thought I'd be in any kind of hall of fame. I just rode for love of the game.
"I had a blessed career. God blessed me in more ways than one – a wonderful wife (Patti), a wonderful daughter, great parents – and continues to bless me, doing something I love."