Tuesday, February 9, 2010

George Woolf Memorial... A Caliente Tradition

A guest post by David J. Beltran

Every winter since 1950, jockeys select one of their peers to receive the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Award at Santa Anita. The list reads like a roll call for the Hall of Fame. Riders like Shoemaker, Arcaro, Longden and Pincay are among those who have been awarded this trophy. While most racing fans are aware of the award at Santa Anita, many don’t realize that Agua Caliente also had its own version of the George Woolf Memorial Award as well.

Daily Racing Form announces the 1965 running of the George Woolf Memorial Handicap.

With Caliente offering the only Sunday racing in the region, track General Manager and President John Alessio suggested that the fans at Caliente would love to see a host of such top riders as Arcaro and Longden come down and ride at Caliente. With the help of Jockey’s Guild Director Bert Thompson, Alessio made all the arrangements to host such a gallery of top jockeys.

Jockeys assembled at Caliente for the Woolf Memorial: (left to right) Eddie Arcaro, Wiiliam Shoemaker, Merlin Volzke, Walter Blum, William Harmatz, Jockey's Guild President Bert Thompson, Pete Moreno, Jimmy Nichols, Gordon Glisson, Johnny Longden, Ray York, Mel Peterson and Rojelio Trejos.

“It was a lot of fun,” said former jockey Donald Pierce in a 2003 interview. “Alessio put it all together, and we would make the trip down to Tijuana, have dinner at the track after the races, watch the greyhounds and then stay overnight and enjoy the drive home."

Jerry Lambert winning the 1968 running. Rider on the second-place horse is Laffit Pincay, Jr.

First run in 1947, a year after the untimely death of The Iceman, the inaugural running of the George Woolf Memorial Handicap was won by Johnny Longden. Set at 1 1/16-miles, Woolf Memorial featured many of the regular jockeys from the current Santa Anita meeting plus one or two top riders at Caliente. And the draw for mounts was held in the Arcadia jockeys room.

The race featured a full field plucked from the handicap ranks at Caliente. Most riders would amble about the Caliente Clubhouse, while others preferred to ride rather than wait for the feature race. While the purse was nothing compared to what was offered north of the border, it was bolstered by the gifts that came along with the winner’s circle trophy -- a saddle and whip with a plaque featuring the previous winners of the race.

Alex Maese in the Jockey's Room at Caliente.

Some of the game’s greatest riders ventured down to Tijuana to ride at Caliente. Jockeys like Arcaro, Longden, Shoemaker, Westrope, and Volzke were among the many that made the trip back to their old stomping grounds at Caliente to honor George “The Iceman” Woolf.

Photos: David Beltran collection.

David J. Beltran was born in Chula Vista and raised in San Diego and Tijuana. He has been attending the races since he was an infant, both at Caliente and the Southern California race tracks. Beltran is the author of the book The Agua Caliente Story (Eclipse Press 2004), a correspondent to Caballo, a racing magazine in Mexico, and a writer for the Argentine racing daily, Turf Diario. He recently published an article in HorsePlayer magazine covering betting on South American imports. Beltran also breeds Thoroughbreds and is a blood-stock agent specializing in Argentinean racing and breeding stock. He lives in Chula Vista with his wife, daughter, and two dogs. His previous posts explored the origins of the Big 'Cap and the "5-10" wager at Caliente.

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