03/27/2008 11:00PM

Mig fits well in Woolf's mold


ARCADIA, Calif. - On his first wide-eyed tour of the Santa Anita grounds, during the autumn of 2006, rider Richard Migliore at one point paused in front of the statue of jockey George Woolf and spent a few moments in silent appreciation.

"What was interesting to me," Migliore recalled, "was that the statue wasn't put there by the racetrack. It says it was put there by the public. That speaks volumes about him, and the impact he had on the sport from a fan's perspective."

Created by sculptor Hughlette "Tex" Wheeler, who also immortalized Seabiscuit in bronze, the Woolf statue greets fans each racing day as they enter the track through the grandstand gates. Migliore was right - Woolf was a favorite of horseplayers and horsemen alike. But when he died on Jan. 4, 1946, from injuries sustained in a race at Santa Anita the previous day, he was only 35, with just 721 winners from 3,784 mounts.

Of those winners, nearly 100 came in stakes events, which cemented Woolf's reputation for displaying grace and calm in times of great pressure. Other than Triple Crown events, Woolf won what were arguably the two most famous races of the day - Pimlico's 1938 match race aboard Seabiscuit against War Admiral, and the 1935 Santa Anita Handicap, the first $100,000 race in the history of the sport.

"Obviously, he was one of the biggest money riders of his era," Migliore noted with admiration. "But my favorite image of Woolf is over at the Derby Restaurant, which he owned. He's in full Western garb, on horseback in a Western saddle. I like riders that are horsemen and ride horses at every level, not just racehorses. That picture speaks to my idea of who he was.

"But the one thing I really remember reading about him was that he was diabetic," Migliore added. "He had to be very careful of how he ate, and really take care of himself. In that period of time, medication must have been different. It must have been very difficult for him to stay fit, stay healthy, travel - all the things we have to do in the job. I think that speaks a lot about his discipline and focus."

It was Woolf's diabetes that is most commonly blamed for his fall from Please Me on the first turn that January afternoon. Four years later, the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award was established by Santa Anita Park, and on Sunday, after the seventh race, Migliore will become the 59th rider to be honored.

The Woolf statuette will be a fine companion piece on the Migliore mantel beside his Mike Venezia Memorial Award, which is roughly the New York version of the West Coast honor. Venezia, like Woolf, was killed in action, as was Avelino Gomez, whose name graces Canada's most prestigious award for jockeys.

"If you go by that, I hope they never name an award after me," Migliore said with a laugh - jockeys laugh at stuff like that - then added, "Maybe we should honor these people more in life so they can enjoy it."

The Woolf Award is designed to do just that. As a career award, it has been voted on for the past quarter century by members of the national Jockeys' Guild. Recent winners such as Jon Court, Mark Guidry, and Ray Sibille have fit the mold of the successful journeymen who have worked almost as hard for the welfare of their colleagues as they have riding thousands of winners.

"That's what makes it so special," Migliore said. "I guess it would be like the Screen Actors Guild voting award for fellow actors. Just the fact that other riders think enough of you, that you've gained their respect, and you've been here long enough and you've endured - tried to be the rider they would want to be."

Migliore's credentials as a Woolf Award candidate were well established before he migrated to California. In his native New York, where Migliore won an Eclipse Award as an apprentice in 1981, riders looked to "Mig" as a passionate, relentless advocate when the position of jockeys needed a strong voice.

Migliore hit the ground running in California with 48 winners and a fourth-place finish at the 2006-07 Santa Anita meet, while taking down major West Coast stakes wins with Kip Deville in the Kilroe Mile, Student Council in the Pacific Classic, and Dixie Chatter in the Norfolk.

By comparison, the current Santa Anita meet has been a disappointment for Migliore fans, who need to look well down the leader board to find his name. But in recent weeks, after teaming with agent Tom Knust, Migliore has been back in a groove, on his personal "drive to five," as he marches toward the rarified company of 5,000 winners. Entering Friday's card, he had 4,329 victories.

He will have five opportunities to add to his totals on Sunday, but after nearly 28 years, that part comes naturally. It is the formalities of the Woolf Award ceremony - choosing which silks to wear, writing and delivering a speech - that have Migliore second-guessing himself. Among the audience will be his wife, Carmela, his three sons, and his daughter.

"I wrote a speech and then tore it up," Migliore said. "It's like, I know what I want to say, now just speak from the heart. I guess what I really hope to do is say something that will mean something to my children."