Good bugs hard to find

I voted for Jose Montano for an Eclipse Award. I couldn't have told you who he is, where he's from, where he rides, how old he is, whether he has even a lick of talent or if he's nice to his mother. Still I voted for him, for the outstanding apprentice of 2012.

If you want to blame me for my ignorance when it comes to the failures and success of apprentice jockeys go ahead. But the bigger issue is that in recent years the crop of bug boys has been so weak that even the best ones ride in anonymity and future stardom seemed certain to elude them. Yet, by default, one will get an Eclipse Award, a coveted honor that is supposed to represent the highest levels of excellence.

The choices were so unappealing this year that I voted for someone never on my radar screen. Even a google search doesn't yield much. With further research I learned that Montano rides at Charles Town and his two biggest wins on the year came in $85,000 stakes for West Virginia breds.

The choices were so unappealing this year that I voted for someone never on my radar screen.

With none of the apprentices making anywhere close to a splash on the national scene, the only sensible way to vote is to go by raw numbers, and Montano's were the best out there. As an apprentice in 2012, he won 187 races for a win rate of 20.78 percent and his mounts earned $2,891,906.

Montano was named one of the three finalists for the award. Another, Angel Suarez, rides at Parx Racing and had 125 winners in 2012 as a bug with earnings of $2,975,769. He didn't win a single stakes race. Like Montano, his year was hardly Eclipse worthy.

Yet the third finalist is perhaps the least deserving. Irad Ortiz Jr. is actually a jockey with a bright future, but was a bug in 2012 for all of one month. The vast majority of his accomplishments, including wins in the Alabama, Coaching Club American Oaks, Vanderbilt and Pennsylvania Derby, came as a journeyman. What he did during his one month as a bug is not nearly enough to even enter the conversation for an Eclipse Award.

(The stats packet sent to voters includes the overall records of jockeys, lumping their wins as apprentices and journeyman. That leads to confusion and is likely the only reason Ortiz received votes. Only their record while having the apprentice allowance should be listed. For Ortiz to win would be an embarrassment).

There was a time when the Eclipse Award for top apprentice produced a long line of notable names and future stars. From 1974 through 1987, three future Hall of Famers (Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen and Kent Desormeaux) won the Award and 1979 winner Cash Asmussen and 1981 winner Richard Migliore had outstanding careers.

That just isn't happening anymore. This year's winner will join a list of recent honorees that consists of Kyle Frey, Omar Moreno and Christian Santiago Reyes. Those three combined to win a mere 147 races in 2012 and one stakes, a $75,000 race won by Frey.

The last true star who won the apprentice Eclipse was Joe Talamo in 2007.

Migliore believes that one of the problems is that riders from other countries, now the majority in any jockey's room, don't focus on winning the Award. That, he says, means they don't plan on beginning their year-long apprenticeship in January and they may not have been properly trained or ready to go when kicking off their careers.

As for American-born riders, Migliore says the talent pool has dried up.

"American kids don't want to be jockeys anymore," he said. "You think of the amount of work that goes into it and throw in the fact that very few American kids are going to be small enough. Also throw in the fact that unless you get to the very top like a Roman Dominguez, John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, you're not going to make a heck of a lot of money and there just aren't many out there who can or are willing to do it."

The run of lackluster Eclipse candidates among apprentices has so soured some people on the award that there is talk of doing away with it. That might be premature, but if there's not a notable improvement in the quality of the eligible jockeys then maybe it would be time to do away with an Eclipse apprentice award.

In the meantime, best of luck to likely 2012 Eclipse Award winning apprentice Jose Montano…whoever you are.

I LIKE MIKE: The most notable news to come out of the announcement of Eclipse finalists was that Little Mike was not among the top three for Horse of the Year. I didn't vote for him. I voted for Wise Dan. But that a horse who won the Turf Classic at Churchill, the Arlington Million and the Breeders' Cup Turf was left out is baffling. Finalist Fort Larned had a nice enough year, but he never should have gotten the nod over Little Mike.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.