09/23/2010 3:11PM

Apprentice Eclipse an award we can afford to lose

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Now before the court of public opinion are the trials and tribulations of California-based jockey Christian Santiago Reyes, who has made headlines in connection with an alleged tampering with the weight he was supposed to be carrying during a race at Hollywood Park last June.

That Santiago Reyes, who is 21, already had more than a month’s worth of suspension days for riding infractions hanging over his head was bad enough. This speaks, at best, to a certain imprecision in his skills as a rider, at worst an unwillingness to learn from his mistakes. Compounding the story, however, is the sober realization that Santiago Reyes, just last January, was standing on stage before the Thoroughbred industry as the winner of the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice of 2009.

This is not the first whiff of scandal or sad disappointment attached to this particular award:

Ron Franklin, the 1978 winner, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness the following year aboard Spectacular Bid. Nine days after Spectacular Bid and Franklin lost the Belmont Stakes, he was arrested for possession of cocaine in the parking lot at Disneyland.

Jesus Bracho, the 1992 winner, was discovered to have misrepresented his record in his native Venezuela and, in fact, was not eligible for apprentice allowances by U.S. standards. Rosemary Homeister, runner-up in the voting, was presented the award the at the Eclipse Awards dinner the following year.

It was touch and go for a while for 2000 Eclipse Award winning apprentice Tyler Baze, whose career was threatened by alcohol and dangerous weight-loss habits. The good news is that Baze, now 27, has emerged from those dark corners and is a respected member of the California riding colony. He’s also ready to return to action after suffering facial fractures during the Del Mar meet just concluded.

Consider, though, if the 2000 award had gone to New York’s top apprentice, Norberto Arroyo, who finished a close runner-up to Baze in the voting. Since then, Arroyo’s life and career have been in a steady downward spiral to a point where, last March, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in state prison for a cocaine possession arrest in Saratoga Springs during the summer of 2009.

A similar fate befell Greta Kuntzweiler, who was the other Eclipse Award finalist for the 2000 season, along with Baze and Arroyo. Kuntzweiler was arrested in 2006 for the manufacture of methamphetamine and did jail time, falling to the depths with which Arroyo has become familiar. Like Tyler Baze, however, Kuntzweiler has staged a career comeback that has been the most inspiring story of the 2010 season.

Such relatively isolated horror stories could be spun as the Curse of the Apprentice Eclipse Award. But it’s not as if the sport is rolling the dice. For every Bracho, Franklin, or Arroyo there are any number of admirable honorees. Hall of Famers Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, and Kent Desormeaux won the award. So did international star Cash Asmussen and such journeymen stalwarts as Jimmy Edwards, Frank Lovato, Richard Migliore, Mike Luzzi, Mark Johnston, and Shaun Bridgmohan.

The problem is that there is an award at all. And there always has been, dating back to the first group of Eclipse Awards handed out in 1971, when Gene St. Leon was honored alongside journeyman champ Laffit Pincay.

It has always seemed inappropriate to single out an apprentice jockey from among the many to receive an award that looks, feels, and smells the same as the award given to the champion journeyman. These are teenagers, many of them, still refining their skills and learning the trade. Their success as apprentices has as much to do with brilliant agenting and lack of local competition as it has to do with the innate ability of the youngster in question.

The Eclipse Award for apprentices always has smacked of the Golden Globe category called “New Star,” which fell into disrepute when jaws dropped at the announcement of the 1982 winner, pop singer Pia Zadora. As it turned out, it was her moneybags husband who basically bought the award with an ad campaign that left few palms ungreased. The category lasted one more year and was discontinued.

On the other hand, when Patty Duke won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1962, at 16, she was the dramatic exception to a long-standing tradition of honoring accomplished child actors with lesser Oscars more befitting their youth and emotional immaturity. Duke paved the way for Tatum O’Neal to win the same award in 1974 at age 10 and for Anna Paquin to win it in 1994, when she was 11.

Those girls were competing against their elders for the top award in their chosen profession, and it should be no different when it comes to jockeys. Certainly, the apprentice seasons of McCarron, Desormeaux, Cauthen, and even Julien Leparoux, in 2006, would have drawn serious voter support when stacked up against the “old guys.”

With or without an Eclipse Award for apprentices, there will continue to be troubled young athletes who are unable to make the transition from early success to the stability of a long-term career. Certainly, those who try hard and willingly sacrifice deserve encouragement, perhaps in the form of an industry award that puts a spotlight on a group of “stars of the future,” or some such designation.

In the end, greatest reward for an apprentice jockey should be found in the work they’ve chosen and a chance to further prove themselves worthy once shed of the five pounds that branded them as beginners.