10/07/2016 3:54PM

Five receive inaugural Thoroughbred Employee Awards at Keeneland ceremony

Jim Cox photo
From left to right, at the Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards on Friday: Jill Byrne, Victor Espinoza, Izzy Vega, Melissa Cohen, D. Wayne Lukas, James Sebastian, Vinny Castaneda.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Five winners of the inaugural Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards were announced at a luncheon ceremony at Keeneland Racecourse on Friday.

The winners were:

- James Sebastian, of Claiborne Farm, for the Dedication to Breeding Award;

- Jose "Vinny" Castenada, of Marty Jones Racing Stable, for the Dedication to Racing Award;

- Victor Espinoza, of Brookdale Farm, for the Leadership Award – Farm;

- Melissa Cohen, assistant for trainer Richard Violette’s stable, for the Leadership Award – Racing;

- Israel "Izzy" Vega, of Racetrack Chaplaincy of California, for the Thoroughbred Industry Community Award.

Jill Byrne of Churchill Downs acted as the master of ceremonies and trainer D. Wayne Lukas presented the trophies to each winner at the event held in the Keeneland sales pavilion and attended by several hundred people. The awards are sponsored by Godolphin.

The winners of the two Farm and the two Racing awards each received a trophy and a prize of $10,000, with an additional $5,000 being awarded to the winner’s farm or stable.

Vega received $10,000; an additional $5,000 will be given to the charity of his choice.

The awards are modeled after a program that Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin established in England 11 years ago, and was later instituted in Ireland and Australia. The awards recognize excellence and achievement for grooms, foaling crews, exercise riders, office staff, and others who work on both farms and racetracks in the United States. To be eligible, nominees must be U.S. citizens and work at a farm or racing stable in the U.S.

John Ferguson, head of the Godolphin operation for Sheikh Mohammed, could not attend the event, but in a video presentation from England told the gathering: “I would like to congratulate all that were nominated. It’s an incredibly special thing to be nominated for awards like these, because there are many awards in horse racing … but ultimately, horse racing and breeding is about people. You could be the best trainer in the world, you could be the best stud manager in the world, but if you don’t have the right people, you won’t have the right horses.

“It’s the ultimate team game. And you, those who are nominated, should be incredibly proud. You are the cream of the cream.

“So, those of you who have been nominated, you have so much to be proud of. One of you will be a winner of each category, but ultimately you are all winners and you should be incredibly proud.”

Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin in America, said he had reviewed the qualifications of all the candidates and said the judges had an extremely difficult task.

“The judges remarked about the difficulty in separating a winner in each category as the quality of the nominees was simply outstanding,” Bell said. “I’d just like to say congratulations to all the winners and to their colleagues who sent in the nominations, and to the judges who took on the task of selecting the winners.”

The runners-up were Everett Charles, of Stone Farm, and Leon Hamilton, of Ashview Farm, for the Dedication to Breeding Award; Danny Ramsey, of Kenny McPeek Racing, and Raul Rodriguez, of Art Sherman Racing, for the Dedication to Racing Award; John Hall, of Taylor Made, and Matt Koch, of Shawhan Place, for the Leadership Award – Farm; and Jimmy Barnes, from trainer Bob Baffert’s stable, and Laz Guerra, from trainer Mike Maker’s stable, for the Leadership Award – Racing.

Vega was the only finalist for the Community Award.

The two runners-up in the Farm and Racing categories each won $2,500, with the same amount going to their farm or stable.

The panel choosing the finalists was composed of Reid McLellan, executive director of Groom Elite Program; Daniel Fick, ROAP accredited senior steward; Anna Seitz Ciannello, client development and public relations manager, Fasig-Tipton; Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania HBPA; and Stacie Clark, operations consultant, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

The awards are facilitated by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, and The Jockey Club.

Next year’s event is expected to be held around the same time of year, though tentative plans call for it to be held in another state.

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