In June, champion jockey Gary Stahlbaum, a winner of 1,759 career races, was named the 2016 recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award.
The coveted Gomez Award is given to the person, Canadian-born, Canadian-raised or regular rider in the country for more than five years, who has made significant contributions to the sport.
It is bittersweet, but fitting, that Stahlbaum is honoured with an award named for his friend and colleague, the late, great Gomez who tragically perished following complications from a three-horse accident in the running of the 1980 Canadian Oaks.
“I won the Oaks with Par Excellance the day Gomez went down and he didn’t make it,” recalled Stahlbaum. “I remember the press asking me afterward about the Oaks and all I could say was that it was nice to win the race, but I was only worried that the man on the track wasn’t going to make it.”
The classy Toronto native sports an impressive résumé that features a Sovereign Award (1980) as Canada’s top rider, just shy of 120 lifetime stakes triumphs, including 16 graded, and close to $20 million in purse earnings.
Stahlbaum, who retired in 1998, was quick to share the accolades with his friend, and former agent, top Woodbine trainer, Reade Baker.
“Reade should be winning this award with me. He’s the one who found all those horses and put me on them,” said Stahlbaum. “All I did was ride them. Reade has become a great trainer and he’s a very good person.”
Baker looks back fondly on his association with a rider who won stakes races across North America aboard household names like Hall of Fame champion Afleet.
“Gary was a very good rider. It was the golden age of riders with Robin Platts, Richard Grubb, Sandy Hawley and Avelino Gomez,” said Baker. “He rode with a group of Hall of Fame riders who won races all over the world. It was very tough competition and he stayed right with them.
“He was able to adapt, which made him a good rider. And he seemed to win an abnormal amount of stakes races,” continued Baker. “But, you know, fillies, colts, long, short, turf or dirt; it didn’t matter, he could win.”
Stahlbaum may not have won the most races each season, but he did have a knack for winning the big one. “We don’t want to win all the races, we just wanted to win all the money,” he joked.
Baker believes that Stahlbaum’s best ride came in the 1987 Pennsylvania Derby when Afleet was taken on by Arlington Classic winner Lost Code.
“Gary was on the lead and Lost Code just shot by on the final turn,” recalled Baker. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, the jock would go on with them, they don’t like to give up the lead around the turn. But, Gary let them go by and had enough confidence in his horse that he could come and get them and beat them. And he did. You don’t see that every day.”
Afleet took the Pennsylvania Derby by 2 ½-lengths. What seemed heroic to Baker was simply second nature to Stahlbaum.
“When I was a bug boy in Florida, I rode with Walter Blum and Bobby Ussery. I was around great riders and they taught me to ride my own horse, and not ride anybody else’s,” said Stahlbaum. “If the horse wants to go, let him go, but don’t send him. Let them be where they want to be naturally and they’ll have a little something left for you. I kept that in my mind all the time when I was riding. Don’t send, don’t take back, just let them run where they want to and when you ask, they’ll be there for you.”
Baker used a similar technique one Fort Erie morning, in 1977, when he came asking for his rider to come to work only to find Stahlbaum too under the weather to ride.
“We used to live beside each other in Fort Erie and I managed to get him up to go to the races. He was too sick to work horses, so I took him to the jock’s room to rest,” said Baker. “When I called him at 11:30 to tell him I had to take him off his horses he said, ‘I think I’ll ride anyway. I think we have some chances today.’ He won six races that day, which may seem like no big deal, but he only had six mounts on the card. We broke a record that day that had stood for 20 years.”
Stahlbaum tells a slightly different version of the record-setting afternoon.
“The first horse I won on that day was Mini Tutu for Bonnie Bolton. We were going out at the time and, well…I felt obligated to ride the horse,” laughed Stahlbaum. “That horse won, and then the next one won and so I just went along with it. I was pretty sick that day but we ended up six-for-six. Reade was right to get me up.”
Stahlbaum’s list of memorable horses includes the star-studded quartet of champion fillies, Bessarabian, Rainbow Connection, Eternal Search and One From Heaven.
But, if you ask him to name a favourite, he admits to having an affinity for a pair of stakes winners he rode for trainer Jimmy Roberts.
“I rode a horse named Buck Mountain for Jimmy and we won the Swynford at Woodbine,” recalled Stahlbaum. “We took that horse to New York to run in the Youthful and I thought we were doing well until Affirmed and Alydar ran by me. Turning for home I thought, look at this, we’re going to get the cash.”
Buck Mountain finished a respectable fourth in the Youthful keeping Alydar one spot behind him. Affirmed and Alydar would go on to become great rivals with Affirmed winning the U.S. Triple Crown in 1978.
“Tango King was another good one for Jimmy. At five-eighths of a mile he was a stake horse, but if you went an inch further he was a $5,000 claimer. How could he devaluate that far in one jump?!” joked Stahlbaum, who is enjoying his retirement living in the east end of Toronto.
There is no devaluating Stahlbaum’s accomplishments on the track and as fitting as it is to see him named the 2016 Avelino Gomez Memorial Award winner, Baker believes another honour should be under serious consideration for the veteran rider.
“Gary was a professional. He rode his first horse in the first race for $5,000 claiming just as hard as he rode the stakes horses,” started Baker. “I think he deserves Hall of Fame recognition and I hope the committee will take a real hard look at him.”
“Gary was a very good rider. It was the golden age of riders with Robin Platts, Richard Grubb, Sandy Hawley and Avelino Gomez. It was very tough competition and he stayed right with them.”