Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Southern California Trainers Offer Praise for Merlin Volzke

Trainer Bruce Headley holds a photo montage of Volzke's six wins in one season aboard Fast and Lucky.

This morning out at Clockers’ Corner, Santa Anita, when I asked a few longtime trainers what they remembered about Merlin Volzke, I heard an outpouring of praise for the man who will be the recipient of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Award at Hollywood Park this weekend. In an industry where everyone’s got an opinion, it was difficult indeed to find someone with anything other than a good opinion of Volzke.

Mel Stute, for whom Volzke rode many races, put it best: “In my opinion, anything you could say about him would have to be nice.” Stute then added, “He was never in the limelight for doing anything wild.”

Volzke will be the first jockey to receive the Pincay Award, which will be presented by the Hall of Fame jockey himself during Saturday’s Hollywood Gold Cup program.

He was apparently so well known for his integrity as a rider, that several trainers I spoke to said that Volzke was notorious for never getting “set down.” In fact, the general consensus was that he only received one suspension in his entire riding career – and a minor one at that.

“He was a good advertising for racing,” said George Vogel.

Bruce Headley, for whom Volzke rode in the 1970s, was also eager to offer words of praise.

“He helped me more than any other jockey in the days when I was working my own horses,” said Headley. Headley proudly displays some of the winning photos from those days, noting that Volzke won 8 of 11 races on Fast and Lucky for him in 1974. Six of those wins came in one season at Golden Gate Fields. The other two were the Camellia and Native Diver Stakes at Bay Meadows the same year.

It seemed that everyone wanted to share a story about Volzke. Hot walker Danny Kaplan recalled an encounter with Volzke in 1977, when Kaplan rode his first race at Vallejo. Volzke, who was nearing retirement and rode in the same race, came up to Kaplan afterwards and asked, “How did it feel?” Kaplan said, “I asked him what he meant, and he said, ‘Riding your first race! I can’t remember.’”

Volzke began his professional riding career in the 1940's and was leading jockey at Longacres in 1948. His major victories in California included an upset win on Hanalei Bay in the 1970 Hollywood Derby, the 1961 El Camino Handicap on Native Diver, the 1954 San Pasqual Handicap on Phil D., the 1954 Santa Anita Maturity on Apple Valley, the 1968 San Gabriel Handicap and 1969 Arcadia Handicap on Rivet, the 1969 La Jolla Handicap on Eagle Fly, and the 1969 San Miguel Stakes on Mr. Joe F.

Volzke, now 83, retired as a jockey in 1979. He then worked as a steward at Los Alamitos and Bay Meadows before retiring in 2005. He was the recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1958 and the Jackie Robinson Memorial Award at Bay Meadows in 1975. He now lives in Pinole, Calif., with wife Catherine of 56 years and daughter Eileen.

The Pincay Award is presented annually to an individual who has served the sport with integrity, extraordinary dedication, determination and distinction. Congratulations to a recipient who so obviously deserves the honor!

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