Champion jockey Gary Stahlbaum, who won 1,759 career races, has been named the 2016 recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award.
His riding résumé features a Sovereign Award (1980) as Canada’s top rider, nearly 120 lifetime stakes triumphs, including 16 graded, and close to $20 million in purse earnings.
The Gomez recognition certainly stands out as one of Stahlbaum’s most cherished accomplishments.
“I guess the best way to describe how I felt when I found out about the award is ‘surprised,’” said Stahlbaum. “I’ve been away from the races so long, so to find out about this, it’s really nice to have this honour.”
Throughout his career, Stahlbaum went head-to-head against some of the sport’s most decorated stars, Hall of Fame legends like Sandy Hawley, Robin Platts and Gomez himself.
And although his name might not be mentioned in the same breath as those race-riding standouts, Stahlbaum undoubtedly deserves recognition and acknowledgement for his abilities in the saddle.
Robbie King, a former rider and Gomez honoree, and current Executive Director of the Jockey Benefit Association of Canada, is thrilled to see Stahlbaum noted for his impact on thoroughbred racing.
“Gary was a great jockey, who could do it all very well, be that nursing a sensitive filly on the lead or rousing a lazy colt from off the pace,” said King. “He was the real deal, or as Cordero once jokingly told him after beating Angel on the wire, ‘You ride pretty good for a white boy!’”
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.
A native of Toronto, now residing near where Greenwood Racetrack used to be, Stahlbaum rode several of Canada’s most accomplished horses for two decades, including Horse of the Year, Afleet, and champion fillies, Bessarabian, Rainbow Connection, Eternal Search and One From Heaven.
His breakthrough season came in 1971 in just his second full year of riding when he won 148 races. In 1977, Stahlbaum had a career best win total of 196 triumphs. In a three-year period from 1979-81, he captured the coveted riding title at Woodbine’s summer meet.
Stahlbaum’s run of stakes success started in 1972 and carried on to 1989. In 1980, he won both divisions of the Natalma aboard Rainbow Connection and Bessarabian. He rode in the first ever Breeders’ Cup in 1984 and was aboard favoured Bessarabian, who was interfered with early in the stretch drive. Four years later, Stahlbaum finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with the great Afleet, who charged home late to finish third behind Gulch.
“I wish I would have won the Queen’s Plate,” said the 65-year-old. “I finished second three times. But, I was lucky enough to win some good races and have some success.”
Stahlbaum’s looking forward to the Gomez ceremonies that will take centre stage on June 12, Woodbine Oaks day.
“It will be nice to be back at the racetrack,” said Stahlbaum. “I was there the day Mickey (Walls) got his Gomez Award. As for Avelino, he was the man. He could find a way to get a horse to win. He was the king. I remember Avelino would say that he was the king, and that (jockey) Jeff Fell – who he took under his wing and tutored – he said he was the queen. I always had a great respect for Avelino and the rider he was.”
Presented annually on Woodbine Oaks day at Woodbine, the honour is named in memory of one of the sport’s most heralded and loved performers. The Cuban-born Gomez died of complications after a three-horse accident in the 1980 Canadian Oaks, a race that Stahlbaum won.
“I remember being in the winner’s circle and being asked questions, but all I was thinking about was Avelino.”
To commemorate his contributions to the sport, a life-size statue of Gomez, who called Toronto home and raised a family there, keeps watch over Woodbine’s walking ring. A replica is presented to each year’s honouree.
Stahlbaum joins Ron Turcotte, Johnny Longden, Sandy Hawley, Don MacBeth, Chris Rogers, Jeff Fell, Lloyd Duffy, Hugo Dittfach, Robin Platts, Larry Attard, Don Seymour, David Gall, Richard Grubb, Irwin Driedger, David Clark, Jim McKnight, Chris Loseth, Richard Dos Ramos, Robert Landry, Francine Villeneuve, Sam Krasner, John LeBlanc Sr., George Ho Sang, Jack Lauzon, Robert King Jr., Stewart Elliott, Emile Ramsammy, Steve Bahen, Mickey Walls, Patrick Husbands and last year’s recipient, Quincy Welch, as Gomez honourees.