01/11/2012 12:26PM

Hovdey: Eclipse apprentice selection process still has a few bugs

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By now it has become painfully apparent that the effort to determine which apprentice jockey deserves an Eclipse Award each year might be more trouble than it is worth. First the trouble, then the worth.

Polls closed Wednesday for a second round of voting in the apprentice category for 2011. The first round was declared null and void when it was discovered the electorate was provided inaccurate statistics, kind of like learning after the fact that Newt Gingrich actually has five ex-wives instead of just the two. It might have swayed a few votes.

A split statistical personality comes with the territory of being an apprentice. Depending on when the clock starts on the apprenticeship, the status of being a “bug” (thank you, old-timers) could end part way through a season, or overlap into the next, or even be extended by commission or stewards’ decree because of injuries incurred.

Omar Moreno, the handsome young Canadian by way of San Salvador, leveraged the calendar to win the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top apprentice of 2009 and then the Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding apprentice of 2010. Happily enough, he’s still in the Canadian top 10 as a journeyman.

Rosario Montanez, Ryan Curatolo, and Kyle Frey were announced last week as the finalists for the 2011 apprentice Eclipse Award and their standing was confirmed by the revote that concluded Wednesday.

In the case of Montanez, stats were included in the voter information material that were accumulated after he became a full journeyman in early August. Many voters never having even heard of Rosario Montanez before that may have been rightfully influenced his way, since his totals in purses earned by mounts ended up topping the table.

The good news is that Montanez, a 20-year-old native of San Diego competing primarily at Parx in Pennsylvania, does not have to give back his cut of the $1.1 million or so his mounts earned since early August, when he began riding on equal terms. It occurs to me that this should lean to his credit as a young jockey, but for purposes of determining an Eclipse Award it does not.

The vote snag was a more innocent version of the 1992 process when Jesus Bracho, the Eclipse Award winning apprentice, misrepresented his statistics in his native Venezuela. Rather than going through the hassle of a re-vote, and much to the embarrassment of the people who run the show, it was decided that the runner-up in the 1992 voting, Rosemary Homeister, should be elevated. As a result both Homeister and 1993 apprentice award winner Juan Umana received trophies at the Eclipse Dinner of early 1994 in Washington, D.C.

The voting for the apprentice Eclipse of 1997 ended in a tie, a far less likely event now that the process has been modernized to eliminate the bloc voting of the past (don’t ask). Ties are okay in racing, I guess, although the idea that both Roberto Rosado and Philip Teator left the 1998 dinner in Rancho Mirage with a trophy diluted an award already of questionable value.

It’s also a risk, a roll of the dice, to put such a glaring spotlight on young riders by hanging an Eclipse Award around their necks. There is such a thing as too much too soon. Eclipse winners Steve Valdez, Ronnie Franklin, Tyler Baze, and Christian Santiago Reyes all won their awards on the square and then later made headlines for behavior that tarnished not only their trophies, but the sport as well.

Thankfully, the vast majority of apprentice Eclipse winners went on to admirable careers, among them Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, Cash Asmussen, Richard Migliore, Kent Desormeaux, Mike Luzzi, Shaun Bridgmohan, Jeremy Rose, Emma-Jayne Wilson, Julien Leparoux, and Joe Talamo. Would their careers have been any different had there not been an Eclipse Award to win?

“Not really,“ replied Migliore, one of New York’s all-time leaders and the award winner for 1981. “I still went through my post-apprentice slump and had to work hard at it a couple years before my business rebounded.”

This is not to say Migliore does not cherish his award and defend its continuance as part of the Eclipse process.

“When I started out, winning the award was a goal, and extremely important to me,” Migliore said. “Even my boss, Steve Dimauro, kind of mapped it out so I’d have pretty much a full year with the bug.

“Donnie Miller was the runner-up in the voting the year I won it,” Migliore noted. “I’d lost my bug five or six weeks before him, and he wound up passing me in wins with the bug, but not in money. There was a lot of talk he might pull it off and win the award. But logic prevailed.”

Self-deprecating to a fault, Migliore laughed at his own wisecrack. In addition to hosting a racing radio show these days, he is employed by the New York Racing Association as mentor to a vibrant colony of apprentices jockeys. He sees nothing wrong in their striving for something like an Eclipse Award.

“For anybody who endeavors to something a little bit different, like being a jockey, you have to be very goal-oriented,” Migliore said. “I’m sure baseball players looking to be Rookie of the Year feel the same way: You’re making a statement about what you're doing, and you want to excel.”

Apprentices, though, get that weight allowance, which sometimes amounts to a fourth strike.

“Yes but unlike baseball, there’s no Little League in horse racing,” Migliore said. “In racing, you can work horses your whole life, but you can never re-create an actual racing circumstance. That’s why owners and trainers have to be given some incentive to use young riders. The system works because it’s the only way some guys are going to get a shot.

“No one’s trying to say that a kid standing up there winning the apprentice Eclipse Award, no matter what his potential, compares to the legends of the sport,” Migliore added. “It’s a nice incentive for a rider to set a goal and understand the hard work it takes to get there. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of good things to come and that someday you’ll have a body of work to be proud of.

“For that matter,“ Migliore said, “anybody would trade an Eclipse Award for a plaque in the Hall of Fame.”