10/28/2011 12:31PM

Fort Erie jockeys' race coming down to wire


FORT ERIE, Ontario – The 2011 annual HBPA awards dinner honoring the top Fort Erie meet performers was held Thursday evening, and although most categories had been settled, the jockeys’ race is still as tight as they come, with three riders in the mix. The final days of the meet, Sunday through Tuesday, will decide the outcome.

Also, as the season comes to a close, perennial winning trainer Nick Gonzalez has been making smoke of late and continues to hold a longshot’s chance for the top trainer honors. Ross Armata and his sub-trainer, By Raghunath, have led this category all year and with 27 wins, and still hold a six-win advantage over Gonzalez.

Jockeys Chris Griffith and Real Simard have been riding up a storm in these final weeks of the 2011 season and have now engaged Kirk Johnson in the battle for the riding title.

Johnson, who topped the standings going into last week, has momentarily stalled at 54 wins, while Griffith, who led back in May, has again found his best stride and taken charge with 55 wins. Meanwhile, Simard has also been on a hot streak and is now at 53 wins.

Krista Carignan, inactive at this time, was named the top female rider of the year at the HBPA awards.

Carignan, who many believe would have won her second straight riding title, held a sizeable lead going into the final two months of the season with 49 wins, but she put away her tack in September for personal reasons.

Betty Jo Williams had an excellent year at the Fort and was given top honors in the apprentice jockey category.

Horse of the year honors went to owner/trainer Mel Widenmaier’s Gray Minute. The 3-year-old filly had two route Cup victories in addition to an allowance win in six starts.

Best groom honors went to Eric Raghunath, while top assistant trainer was awarded to Pepe Pizarro. In categories voted on by their peers, Kirk Johnson won for outstanding rider, and the trainer award went to Anthony Husbands.

My Natalie, owned and trained by Martin Drexler, won top female sprinter. In seven races at the Fort, she won four straight and was in the money in the other three outings. My Natalie holds the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs here with a time of 1:03.27 on Sept. 19, 2010.

Her male counterpart for the sprint honors was Endofconversation. The 4-year-old gelding, owned and trained by Dorothy Gentner, won two of three starts at the Fort including the Bob Summers Memorial Cup in the quick time of 1:09.45 for six furlongs.

The two-furlong sprint honors went to Rhythm of the Sea. A 4-year-old filly trained by Anthony Husbands, she tried the distance three times this season, winning all three dashes.

The best claim of the year was Puzzle Dream, taken by owner/trainer Anthony Tyler. Claimed out of a nonwinners of two for $4,000, the 4-year-old filly went on to win just under $25,000.

Other award winners included Tapit’s Brew male turf horse; Elegant Kindness, female turf horse; the gelding Game Ball and the filly Gray Minute as best route performers, and Kinstar and Molinaro Rush for top male and female claimers, respectively.