From breezing horses as a 14-year-old at the 2-year-old in training sales to landing the 2015 Eclipse Award as champion apprentice jockey, the career of Tyler Gaffalione has been steered on an upward trajectory that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Gaffalione has easily surpassed his 2021 earnings, with his purses totaling $26,724,080 as of Dec.14. The native of Davie, Fla., ranks fourth nationally and has landed 23 graded stakes, including seven grade 1 races. He was the leading rider at the Keeneland spring meet, Churchill Downs spring and September meets, Kentucky Downs meet, and was second by one win at Keeneland’s fall meet and by two wins at the Churchill Downs fall meet. It became even more of a year to remember for Gaffalione and his longtime agent Matt Muzikar when the 28-year-old captured not one, but two Breeders’ Cup races in November.
“It was a dream come true (winning the Breeders’ Cup),” Gaffalione said. “It was a little bit of pressure coming into this year because my record hasn’t been the greatest and it seemed like more people were talking about it. But my agent had me loaded this year and we had a lot of confidence coming in. Horses seemed to be peaking at the right time and everything just fell into place.”
When championship weekend finally arrived, Muzikar’s faith never wavered in the rising star.
“The press made an issue out of it, saying he was 0-for-29 or whatever it was,” Muzikar said. “But you forget Tyler’s only been riding 7 1/2 years. I’ve had him for six years. He’s had opportunities in the Breeders’ Cup and he’s ridden well. Got Stormy comes to mind, (Gaffalione rode her to a second-place finish against males in the 2019 TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park).
“The Breeders’ Cup is tough for everybody. There’s plenty of great riders who didn’t win any Breeders’ Cup races this year, and he won two. The Breeders’ Cup is extremely, extremely competitive.”
Muzikar, who linked up with Gaffalione in 2016, ensured the jockey was stacked with mounts Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday. Of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races, Gaffalione rode in all but three.
Gaffalione and Caravel lit up the tote board Saturday with a stunning 42-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. That came the day after Gaffalione tasted Breeders’ Cup glory for the first time aboard potential 2-year-old filly champion Wonder Wheel .
Gaffalione has ridden the D.J. Stable runner in every one of her five trips to the post, with the only blemish on their record coming in the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The daughter of Into Mischief was highly regarded from day one by trainer Mark Casse’s team, and she made a striking impression on Gaffalione after her debut victory June 3.
“I remember during the Keeneland spring meet Mark’s assistant Allen Hardy kept telling me he had a nice one for me,” Gaffalione said. “So when (Wonder Wheel) made her first start at Churchill, we were all pretty excited. The thing that impressed me the most about her that day was that they said she might need a race because she is a bigger filly, but she won so nicely and was so professional.”
After a romp in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill, Wonder Wheel was sent to Saratoga for the summer. And Gaffalione followed. It was there, during the filly’s morning breezes with Gaffalione, that Casse could see that Wonder Wheel was truly special.
“We hadn’t won a Breeders’ Cup with a young horse since Classic Empire, and to me, she just had all the makings of the next Classic Empire,” Casse said.
But during the Saratoga meet Gaffalione nearly lost the mount on his treasured filly. Having made a prior commitment at Kentucky Downs, Gaffalione was unable to ride Wonder Wheel in the Sept. 4 Spinaway and Casse named John Velazquez on her. Fortunately, the racing gods looked down upon this dynamic duo, and when thunderstorms forced cancellations at Kentucky Downs, Gaffalione was freed up to ride Wonder Wheel.
“I got a message from (Muzikar) saying how Tyler would really love to ride Wonder Wheel in the Spinaway and he’ll fly up and do it for nothing, he wants nothing, he just wants to ride her,” Casse said. “I talked to the Greens (Leonard and John Green of D.J. Stable) and they were fine with it, but I told him he had to clear with Velazquez himself. And Johnny being the gentleman he is said of course Tyler could ride her. So, who knows, had that not occurred, Johnny could have very well been on her in the Breeders’ Cup.”
But as fate would have it, Gaffalione would be the one on Wonder Wheel’s back that Breeders’ Cup Friday.
Although Wonder Wheel was entering the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies off a gallant score in the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes over the same Keeneland surface, there were admittedly a few dicey moments as the race began. After running on or close to the lead in all of her prior starts, Wonder Wheel was slow to break and found herself 11th of 13 heading into the first turn. Wonder Wheel maintained that position through six furlongs before slipping past her rivals on the bend for home and powering past her Spinaway conqueror, Leave No Trace , with a furlong to go.
“It was just the position we got stuck in, but she handles everything you throw at her with class,” Gaffalione said. “The sky’s the limit with her. We’re looking forward to seeing her again in January.”
“Tyler went through places in that race that not a lot of riders would go, and you can say the same about Wonder Wheel,” Casse said. “He got stuck and had to sit on her while everyone got to go. And then the rail opened up and he was able to shoot through there. It was a great team effort between the two.”
What made that first Breeders’ Cup win all the more special for Gaffalione was that he did it on a Casse-trained horse. Gaffalione, the son of retired Florida-based jockey Steve Gaffalione, embarked on his riding career at Gulfstream Park. It was during Gaffalione’s tenure as an apprentice in 2015 that Casse became one of his earliest supporters, supplying him with consistent mounts at the Hallandale track.
“I can’t even put it into words (what Mark has meant) to my career, Mark has been so influential,” Gaffalione said. “He’s always been there for me and believed in me.”
The Hall of Fame trainer provided Gaffalione with his first grade 1 win aboard Salty in the 2018 Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes Presented by Twinspires.com along with his first Triple Crown victory a year later with War of Will in the 2019 Preakness Stakes.
Besides Gaffalione’s raw talent, Casse appreciates his infectious positivity in an industry “where we lose a lot more than we win.”
“(Gaffalione) reminded me of a time about 15 or so years ago, when I went out to California with a string and started riding this new rider that many people hadn’t heard of at the time,” Casse said. “Everyone was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ and I just told my owners, ‘Listen, I like his attitude, he’s a great rider. He’s going to be a superstar.’ And that rider was Joel Rosario.
“I felt that same way about Tyler pretty early on. I see Tyler as just a star. We’ve had a lot of luck together. He’s a great rider but more importantly, he’s a great person.”
Gaffalione had a slightly different relationship with Caravel ahead of the Turf Sprint. The rider had developed a solid correlation with Qatar Racing’s Sheikh Fahad, who had purchased the Mizzen Mast mare, in partnership with Marc Detampel and Madaket Stables, for $500,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton November Sale. Gaffalione’s initial ride on Caravel resulted in a creditable sixth against the boys in the Grade 2 Twinspires Turf Sprint Stakes Presented by Sysco on Derby day. The Brad Cox trainee ran five more times before that memorable Turf Sprint win, twice under Luis Saez, although Gaffalione guided the steadily improving 5-year-old to the winner’s circle in the Grade 3 Intercontinental Stakes at Belmont Park and the Grade 3 Franklin Stakes at Keeneland, her final rehearsal before the Breeders’ Cup.
Then in a race where the world’s top-rated turf sprinter failed to break, Gaffalione seized the opportunity.
“It definitely didn’t go as planned,” Gaffalione admitted. “I didn’t expect to be on the front with Golden Pal in there, but when we broke I looked over and no one was there and she broke well, so I took advantage. She was doing it pretty easy. In those kind of races they are all top horses, so you expect horses to come running at you. But she kept digging and kept finding.”
The gray mare from Pennsylvania shocked the field with a frontrunning triumph, giving Gaffalione his second career Breeders’ Cup victory in two days.
On the cusp of 2,000 victories, Gaffalione is keen to keep his momentum propelling forward as the racing season moves southward to Gulfstream for the winter. With Muzikar by his side, the foreseeable future appears bright.
“Meeting Matt has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” Gaffalione said. “Not only is he a great agent, but he’s a great mentor. He’s taught me a lot about life, a lot about the business, and helped me mature as an individual. I’m just so thankful to have him in my life.”
“We’ve been fortunate to land on some really nice horses this year,” Muzikar said. “But along with that Tyler is still maturing as a rider and still getting better. That’s the reason why you see the forward trend in his earnings each year. Each year he gets better and better.”