01/26/2018 1:06PM

Amid Eclipse glitz, a dose of reality

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Shelley Blodgett, left, and Kelley Stobie accept the Special Eclipse Award for their rescue efforts at Camarero Racetrack. Responders to the San Luis Rey Downs fire also were recognized.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – On a night that celebrated the best achievements in racing on the track, it was the reflection on life-changing events off the track that provided the most poignant moments at the 47th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park on Thursday.

Representatives from the San Luis Rey Downs training center in California and Camarero Racetrack in Puerto Rico – who were presented with Special Eclipse Awards – spoke of the struggles their brethren endured, and are continuing to overcome, while acknowledging the overwhelming support they received in the aftermath of tragedies that impacted their lives late last year.

Peter Miller, a trainer based at San Luis Rey Downs who lost five horses in the fire that engulfed that facility on Dec. 7, said that out of that horrific day “came one of the most uplifting experiences of my life.”

“The sheer kindness, selflessness, and generosity of horse people around the world blew me away,” said Miller, who was chosen to represent the hundreds of people who worked, and even lived, at San Luis Rey Downs.

“This has restored my faith in people, especially horse people,” Miller said.

While those waiting to return to San Luis Rey Downs have been able to move forward to some degree owing to temporarily relocating to Del Mar, the situation at Camarero is still a Herculean struggle. Kelley Stobie, who, along with Shelley Blodgett of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare, spoke on behalf of efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, said “a lot of us are still without electricity” more than four months since the hurricane.

“The immediate crisis has passed, but the racing industry in Puerto Rico still has a long ways to go,” Stobie said.

Puerto Rico has produced a number of outstanding jockeys over the years, including Jose Ortiz, who was voted the Eclipse Award winner for the first time. As he finished his acceptance speech, Ortiz’s voice cracked with emotion as he acknowledged his brother, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

“I dedicate this award to my brother. Thank you,” Jose Ortiz said.

Like Ortiz, owner Gary West was a first-time winner, for his 3-year-old colt West Coast. But West has been in the game for decades, which he said made him all the more appreciative of finally winning.

“I’ve waited 40 years for this award,” said West, who races horses in partnership with his wife, Mary. Had he won early on, West said he might have thought this was easy, but “after 40 years of beating your head against the wall, I can say this is a tough game.”

West Coast this year will try to follow in the footsteps of Gun Runner, as a Grade 1 winner at 3 who remained in training at 4 and went on to be Horse of the Year.

Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner’s trainer, said he was gratified that a horse who had so much residual value at the end of his 3-year-old campaign continued to race instead of going to stud. The payoff was Horse of the Year. Asmussen said he was thrilled that owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm were “rewarded like this.”

The awards ceremony was the longest in at least 20 years, clocking in at 3 hours and 5 minutes by the time the connections of Gun Runner were able to leave the stage after accepting the gold trophy for Horse of the Year. Nick Luck, the witty British commentator who played host for the first time, gradually embraced the absurdity of the situation as it unfolded, repeatedly making light of the lengthy evening.

As the ceremony reached the two-hour mark, Luck said, “I’ve just had a catheter put in, so I should be good for the next three hours.” Fifteen minutes later, after a video was shown for Gun Runner – at that point the second of three Horse of the Year candidates to have a tribute played – Luck said of the Horse of the Year award, “We’ll find out his fate very shortly. But let’s not get carried away – sometime this week.”

It only seemed like the ceremony had taken 10 years when Alex Waldrop, the president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association who always presents the final award of the night, opened the envelope and said, “The 2007 Horse of the Year is Gun Runner.”