12/21/2016 12:50PM

Apprentices Luzzi, Ocasio battling for Eclipse Award

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Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Lane Luzzi has won 88 races and has mount earnings of $2.2 million this year as an apprentice jockey.

The apprentice jockey category can be one of the most difficult for Eclipse Awards voters. It is not easy to compare young riders from different circuits, and often the apprentices are not well known beyond their region.

When the three finalists are announced in early January, Lane Luzzi and Luis Ocasio are sure to be among them. Their mounts have earned the most purse money among apprentices, and through Tuesday they led by wins.

Ocasio, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico in March, is on top in both categories. Through Tuesday, he has 101 wins and earnings of $2.7 million. He races against a group of salty veterans at Parx, where he is battling for second in the standings.

“If the voters go by the statistics, we win,” said his agent, Gersom Rodriguez.

Luzzi began riding in November 2015 in Maryland and has competed in south Florida since June. He has won 88 races and has mount earnings of $2.2 million this year, despite missing six weeks with a broken collarbone. He also has won three stakes in Florida.

Walter Blum Jr., who represents Luzzi, places a lot of emphasis on the stakes wins and the competition his rider is facing at Gulfstream.

“The stakes are important,” Blum said. “It shows that it is not the weight helping win races, it’s him. And, he’s down here riding against Johnny Velazquez and Javier Castellano. That has to count for something.”

Luzzi and Ocasio are both 19, but that’s where the similarities end. They come from vastly different backgrounds.

Luzzi is the son of jockey Mike Luzzi, the Eclipse-winning apprentice of 1989 and a winner of more than 3,400 races. Lane Luzzi grew up a half-mile from Belmont Park and has been going to the track with his father since he was a youngster.

When Lane Luzzi began his riding career, he went to Laurel Park and was given a helping hand by trainer Lacey Gaudet. Mike Luzzi also started out in Maryland, where he was mentored by Gaudet’s parents, Eddie and Linda Gaudet.

Ocasio is from the countryside in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, where the Camarero racetrack is located. He is the first member of his family to be involved in horse racing. He knew very few people when he came to the United States and lives in the home of his agent, along with Rodriguez’s wife and daughter.

Ocasio speaks limited English but is working to improve that. He is a graduate of Escuela Vocacional Hipica, the famed Puerto Rico jockey school, which has produced a slew of successful U.S. riders.

Both Luzzi and Ocasio look good on horseback and should continue to do well as journeymen. Luzzi’s apprenticeship ends in mid-February; Ocasio’s in April.

That Luzzi has steady business at the tough Gulfstream Park championship meet says a lot about how horsemen view him.

“It’s crazy,” Luzzi said. “I see things so much differently during a race now than when I started. I still learn something every race but I am much more confident and more focused now.”

Blum is the son of Hall of Fame rider Walter Blum. He was the agent for last year’s Eclipse-winning apprentice, Tyler Gaffalione, and goes way back with Luzzi’s family.

“I’ve known him his whole life,” Blum said of his client. “His great-grandfather Buddy Raines rode my father. The No. 1 thing I love about Lane is he’s from a family of jockeys, just like Tyler and me. It’s second nature to him. He’s in tune with the game.”

Luzzi’s goal has been to win the Eclipse Award, but now, as the decision nears, his priorities have shifted.

“We’ve done the hard work, had a good year, and winning would be great,” he said. “But I am more focused on building my career, on setting a foundation where I can be a successful rider.”

If Luzzi is voted the award, it will be the first time a father and son have won the apprentice award since the Eclipse Awards were founded in 1971.

Like Blum, Rodriguez has had previous success with young riders. He came to the United States from Puerto Rico in 2002 with J.D. Acosta, who has since won 2,999 races. Rodriguez also has worked for Eclipse Awards apprentice finalists Arnaldo Bocachica (2007) and Angel Quinones (2004).

Rodriguez learned about Ocasio from his father, Gersom Rodriguez Sr., who over the years has worked as an agent, racing official, and administrator at Camarero racetrack.

“He scouts these kids and tells me who looks best,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t think I would get Luis. I thought he would go to New York or one of the bigger circuits.”

According to Rodriguez, Ocasio’s style is the opposite of many young riders.

“He has a good sense of time and a lot of patience,” Rodriguez said. “He puts his horses in the right position. The aggressiveness will come. He’s going to get there.”

Ocasio said winning the Eclipse would mean a lot.

“Not in my wildest dreams could I think I would have such a year,” Ocasio said. “I think my riding has improved 100 percent. I feel I have improved my style very much. It would be a great triumph for me and my family to win the Eclipse Award.”

The Eclipse could come down to a close vote between Luzzi and Ocasio, who already have proved themselves to be winners.