by Gary West
Yes, it’s the sunshine state, better known for bikinis than black ties, but for this special evening in Hallandale Beach, people will pull out their formal attire, men their tuxedos and women their gowns. Corks will pop, champagne flow and glasses clink Saturday. Kudos and praise will be thrown around like Mardi Gras beads, camera shutters will clatter like cicadas and Ken Ramsey might hand out something red emblazoned with an “R” as he recites the names of all the winners sired by Kitten’s Joy. Bob Baffert will quip, Cot Campbell joke and Jeannine Edwards sparkle as part of the Eclipse Awards ceremony. And by the end of the evening a few people will be clutching a statuette as if it’s their beloved Pomeranian just pulled out of the Gulf of Mexico.
Don’t expect such hoopla to accompany the Westies. They come with no ceremony, no tuxedos, no gowns and, worst of all, no champagne. But they come with sincere respect and admiration, which aren’t exactly common coin.
Javier Castellano, Joel Rosario and John Velazquez are the finalists for the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey. Angel Cruz, Drayden Van Dyke and Taylor Rice are the finalists for the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey. Just being a finalist is, of course, a tremendous honor, and in addition to that two them will have a statuette. The other four will have to settle for a red ball cap emblazoned with an “R.” Obviously two Eclipse Awards honoring jockeys aren’t enough, and so the Westies rush into existence to fill the void. Here are the Westies for 2014.
Jockey of the Year on the turf: Joel Rosario
This might have been the most contentious category, with any of four or five jockeys worthy of distinction. Javier Castellano topped the standings with 152 turf victories, and John Velazquez won the Breeders’ Cup Turf with Main Sequence. Joe Talamo and Florent Geroux also had outstanding records in turf stakes. But Rosario won more stakes on the grass than any other rider in North America, 25, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on Bobby’s Kitten and 13 other graded stakes. Rosario won with 25 of his 115 mounts in turf stakes, or 22 percent.
Jockey of the Year on 2-year-olds: Patrick Husbands
With a masterfully patient ride, Kent Desormeaux won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Texas Red. And Irad Ortiz Jr. topped the standings, riding 41 2-year-old winners and succeeding with 22 percent of his juvenile mounts. But Patrick Husbands, who rode mainly in Canada, won 12 juvenile stakes; no other rider won more than eight. In juvenile stakes, Husbands won with an incredible 44 percent of his mounts; overall he won with 29 percent. Among his juvenile stakes winners were Conquest Tsunami, Imperial Dream and Conquest Typhoon, a favorite for a Sovereign Award.
Clutch Jockey of the Year: John Velazquez
This was another contentious category. Any of four riders could have won this award, which goes to the jockey who seems to rise to the occasion and offers his best when the most is on the line. Big stakes are the telling factor, the bigger the better. Javier Castellano led the nation with 54 stakes victories, followed by Joel Rosario, John Velazquez and Mike Smith. In stakes races, all four topped $10 million in earnings. Castellano and Velazquez both won 30 graded stakes to top the standings. But Velazquez, who came back from a serious injury to have a sensational year, delivered his best lines on the sport’s biggest stage, the Breeders’ Cup. He had five top-three finishes in the sport’s championship event, including, of course, the win on Main Sequence in the Turf. For that accomplishment, he received his third Shoemaker Award.
Finisher of the Year: Rosie Napravnik
This award goes to the jockey who finishes most effectively down the stretch. Expressing his admiration for the jockey, trainer Larry Jones once said that Rosie Napravnik always seems to have plenty of horse in the lane. And seldom, Jones said, can anybody get by her in deep stretch. But that’s not the only reason she wins this inaugural Westy award as Finisher of the Year. How could anybody have a more effective and dramatic finish to a career? In the winner’s circle at Santa Anita after winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Untapable, Napravnik simultaneously announced her pregnancy and her retirement. Now, that’s a finish.
Breakout jockey of the Year: Irad Ortiz Jr.
In 2014, Irad Ortiz Jr. joined the nation’s cohort of elite jockeys. In 2014, Ortiz won 16 graded stakes, more than triple the number he won the previous year. Yes, 2014 was a breakout year for the 22-year-old native of Puerto Rico. He ranked third nationally with 290 victories and $20.23 million in purses, he captured his first riding titles at Aqueduct and Belmont, and with Lady Eli he won his first Breeders’ Cup championship race. He also represented North America the Longines International Jockeys’ Championships in Hong Kong.
Long shot Jockey of the Year: Victor Espinoza
Riding her for the first time, Victory Espinoza discovered something. It wasn’t quite like discovering the Fountain of Youth or America or the trade route to India, but it was close. The discovery enabled Espinoza and Take Charge Brandi to score the third biggest upset in Breeders’ Cup history. She dislikes the whip, Espinoza discovered at the top of the Santa Anita stretch, and so he put his away. She persevered to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies by a half-length at 61-1. Only Arcangues and Court Vision have won Breeders’ Cup races with higher odds.
Gala Apple Jockey of the Year: Russell Baze
The Gala apple isn’t a big apple, and the Gala Apple Westy honors a jockey who didn’t ride the NYRA or Southern California circuit but may have rode primarily at some of the country’s smaller racetracks. And so who else could win but Russell Baze? At 56, he had one of his best years. In 2014, he rode 324 winners, nine more Javier Castellano. Most important, Baze won with an amazing 31 percent of all his mounts while riding mainly in Northern California. And, lest anybody forget, Baze is the sport’s all-time leader in victories with 12,457.
The son of a jockey who then became a trainer, Gary West grew up around racing and horses, and his earliest jobs were all at the racetrack. While going to school, he worked as a hot walker, groom, assistant, agent and valet, and then he set out on a very different career path. But after teaching writing and American literature at the University of Tennessee and publishing scholarly articles in such magazines as The Yeats Eliot Review and The Mark Twain Journal, he returned to the racetrack — as a turf writer. He has worked for the Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram; his work also has appeared in many magazines and journals. He’s the author of Razoo At the Races and has contributed to many books on racing. A former president of the National Turf Writers Association, he currently writes a regular column for ESPN.com.