01/17/2018 3:06PM

Hovdey: Former Eclipse apprentice gets back riding bug

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Kyle Frey shook up the laid-back holiday crowd at Santa Anita last Monday with his work aboard the $25,000 claimer Trickonomics, a 4-year-old gelding of modest accomplishments who lit the board with a $79 mutuel in his first collaboration with Frey.

It had happened before. Last year at Golden Gate Fields, it was the same young rider on 3-year-old Zakaroff in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby for their $99.60 surprise. Frey had never ridden Zakaroff before.

Last year Frey also won the California Oaks on Tap It All and the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks on Shane’s Girlfriend, and finished third in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes with Piedi Bianchi. In each case, he was riding his filly for the first time.

Such accomplishments should not be particularly unusual for jockeys like Frey, who earned the 2011 Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice for his 153 winners and $4 million in purses. They are supposed to be quick studies, ready to ride anything thrown their way as if they were born in the saddle.

But the award comes with no guarantees, and the loss of the apprentice weight allowance has put the brakes on many careers.

Recent winners like Tyler Gaffalione, Drayden Van Dyke, and Victor Carrasco have enhanced their reputations since winning the apprentice award, while Frey, 25, shares a Santa Anita jocks’ room with not only Van Dyke, but also former apprentice Eclipse winners Joe Talamo, Tyler Baze, and Kent Desormeaux, as well as Evin Roman, the likely winner for 2017.

In Frey’s case, his inability to replicate his apprentice numbers has not been for lack of trying. The son of former jockey Jay Frey was on his way to a successful 2012, despite a cluster of riding suspensions, when he sustained a fractured right femur in an accident at Parx. He returned to action at Golden Gate Fields just four months later – a very short time to heal the largest bone in the body – and has ridden with only modest success since then. A fractured collarbone in January of 2015 didn’t help, and then last summer he had to pull the plug on riding because abscesses had formed in the leg he broke five years earlier.

At the time, Frey (pronounced “fray”) was making his first serious run at Southern California. He lost another four months recuperating from surgery.

“The leg is great now,” Frey said Monday in the Santa Anita room. “Right now, it’s just a matter of getting the horses, and keeping my chin up.”

Frey’s Eclipse Award stats came out of the Parx breeding ground for successful apprentices, where a mix of young riders and hard-nosed veterans during a long season makes for an effective finishing school.

“One guy I really learned a lot from was Kendrick Carmouche,” Frey said. “Not from him telling me anything, but just from him beating me doing all the things he does. What an athlete, and talk about a consistent ‘A’ game.”

Stewart Elliott, another one of those Parx veterans, walked by. Frey beamed.

“Tell him about the time I claimed foul on you,” Frey said.

Elliott rolled his eyes.

“I think I tried to make my horse switch leads and bumped him a little,” Elliott said. “I hear him on the phone to the stewards, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, he knocked me sideways, blew my iron,’ like I almost dropped him.”

Of course, Elliott’s number came down. Frey laughed at the memory.

“And it was just the week before, he had told me, ‘If you’re gonna claim foul, make it count,’ ” Frey said.

Very few talented young riders are lucky enough to have a seamless career trajectory. Frey was no different.

“After I broke my leg and had some things with drugs, I kind of got down on myself,” Frey said. “Chronic pain is one of the biggest thing that causes self-medicating. I almost gave up. I started seeing this as a job instead of a passion.”

Frey eventually snapped himself out of his funk and headed to Southern California, where he reunited with his original agent, Mark North. His spirits improved, but the aftereffects of the broken leg lingered.

“Mentally I felt good, but I’d go to get down in the lane and felt like I was riding on one leg,” Frey said. “To be honest, I’d come home in tears, knowing I could do better than this.”

Frey certainly looks the part – polished on the pace, placing horses where they belong, strong at the finish. Since his return last fall, Frey has connected with top stables, like those of Doug O’Neill and Richard Baltas, but he is still trying to be that jock with first call for a live barn. And the competition in the local riding colony right now is spread among a wider array of talent than in many years.

After winning a race on New Year’s Day at Santa Anita, Frey had to wait until the shocker on Trickonomics to record another. Clearly, the Eclipse Award was nice, but it’s only a drop in the bucket when it comes to the challenge of crafting a career.

“That award will always be my foot in the door,” Frey said. “Whatever track I go to, it’s something to say about myself. But I don’t want to be that guy, that one-hit wonder.”