As a veteran of 25-plus years in the saddle, Tampa Bay Downs jockey David Amiss fully appreciates the rapturous highs and devastating lows of his profession.
But nothing the Jockeys’ Guild representative has achieved on the racetrack thrilled and humbled him as deeply as being nominated for the 2014 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award at Santa Anita Park.
“Just to be nominated is like being a winner to me,” said the 48-year-old New Hampshire native, one of five finalists for the honor presented annually since 1950 and voted on by jockeys across the nation. “It’s something I never expected, and it is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my career.”
The other finalists are Aaron Gryder, who won the 2009 Dubai World Cup on Well Armed; Corey Lanerie, a Louisiana native who has more than 3,500 career victories; Scott Stevens, the older brother of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and himself a winner of almost 4,300 races; and northern California mainstay Dennis Carr, who has ridden more than 2,700 winners.
Voting closes Feb. 11 and the winner will be announced soon thereafter.
The Woolf Award honors riders whose careers and personal character reflect positively on the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing. It is named for George “The Iceman” Woolf, a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame perhaps best known for his victory aboard Seabiscuit in the legendary 1938 match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
Woolf, who had Type 1 diabetes, died the day following a 1946 fall during a race, an accident that resulted in a brain concussion and may have been caused by a dizzy spell related to his medical condition.
The list of past Woolf Award winners reads like a “Who’s Who” of racing greats: Bill Shoemaker, Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Angel Cordero, Jr., Ron Turcotte, Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, John Velazquez, Calvin Borel, Ramon Dominguez, et al.
“It is incredible to even be mentioned with all those great riders,” said Amiss, who has ridden more than 1,000 winners while compiling career mount earnings in excess of $10 million. “Just seeing myself standing beside the other guys who are nominated – they are great representatives of our sport who have had phenomenal careers. To be grouped with them, to me, is an amazing feat.”
The nominees for the Woolf Award are chosen following consultation among Jockeys’ Guild National Manager Terry Meyocks and the Guild’s regional managers. Amiss, a Jockeys’ Guild representative at both Tampa Bay Downs and Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, was selected largely for his steadfast advocacy on behalf of his fellow riders at both locales.
“It (being nominated) is about the way you handle yourself and helping other people, whether it is your fellow riders, trainers or grooms,” said Jockeys’ Guild East Coast Regional Manager Heriberto Rivera, Jr., who represents riders at 22 tracks including Tampa Bay Downs. “I have seen David stand up and fight for other jockeys when they needed something done, and he has always been up front working on safety issues.”
“David has always made sure our safety is first and foremost,” echoed fellow jockey Vernon Bush, who has competed against him for years here and at Suffolk. “He is an outstanding gentleman and a role model for the younger riders in the jockeys’ room. He doesn’t come down on them if they make a mistake; he takes them aside, shows them what happened and suggests ways they can correct it.”
As a Jockeys’ Guild representative at Suffolk, Amiss worked for legislation that requires owners to pay an equal purse amount to both riders in the event of a late jockey change. At Tampa Bay Downs, he teamed with Rivera to get additional padding in the starting gate to prevent horses from shifting around excessively, lessening the chance of injuries.
Amiss says he has enjoyed excellent rapport with the management of both tracks. “As jockeys, we are constantly trying to improve the safety aspect of our sport, and we have been able to work closely with the tracks to achieve that goal,” Amiss said. “I’ve never really come across a major issue here, and Tampa is a great atmosphere.”
Amiss is also involved in Guild efforts to create uniform rules within the industry that would give jockeys greater input in determining if a horse is fit to race after warming it up before post time.
Amiss is widely respected for his recovery from a 2000 training accident that severely damaged his left shoulder, sidelining him for almost five years.
“It took a lot of working out and riding a mechanical horse to come back,” he said. “But I love it too much not to try to return, and I think every rider would probably say the same thing. I consider myself very fortunate because I have a lot of friends who got hurt and never made it back.”
Amiss has three children: 16-year-old twins Zachary and Makenna and daughter Emerson, 11. Both of his daughters show horses. Amiss lives with his long-time girlfriend, Thoroughbred trainer Alison Hassig. The children live in Maryland with their mother, Standardbred owner Dawn Amiss.
“When you are around the animals every day, you come to love them,” Amiss said. “I’m lucky to get paid to do what I love. I’ve tried to stay on the straight and narrow and anybody that needed help, I’ve tried to help.”
ANNUAL GOLFEST PRESENTED BY VALSPAR ON TAP
The fourth annual Golfest Presented by Valspar golf lifestyle celebration is next Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 8-9, at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. The highlight of the two-day event is the Celebrity Golf Skills Challenge on Saturday from noon-2:30 p.m., featuring Tampa Bay Rays 2012 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price and his former teammate, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.
Admission both days is $10 for adults, with children 14-and-under free.
Other scheduled Skills Challenge participants include Daren Puppa and Pat Jablonski representing the Tampa Bay Lightning; retired Buccaneers linebacker and Director of Pro Scouting Shelton Quarles and a teammate; rockers Nicko McBrain from the group Iron Maiden and Shawn Drover from Megadeth; Reginald Roundtree and Dave Wirth of Channel 10; Whit Watson from The Golf Channel with former NFL placekicker Ryan Longwell; and WDAE 620-AM radio personality Steve Duemig and 12-year-old IMG Academy prodigy Latanna Stone, who two years ago became the youngest qualifier ever, at 10, for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Each team will compete in a series of golf-skill events, including the “Glass Break,” chipping over a wall, closest-to-the-pin and longest drive inside a grid.
As in past years, numerous big names within the industry – including the world’s leading trick-shot artist, Chuck “The Hit Man” Hiter – will perform exhibitions throughout the two-day extravaganza. Saturday’s stage lineup, which begins at 10:30 a.m., includes long-drive champion and trick-shot artist Mike Ziegler, award-winning instructor Rick Bradshaw and long-time PGA Tour member and Champions Tour winner Jim Dent, known in his prime as the longest hitter on tour.
A popular returning event is the TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) $1,000,000 Hole-in-One Challenge, with entrants having a chance to win the top prize by making an ace in the finals on Feb. 9. Qualifying for the finals will be held throughout both days. The cost to enter is $10. TROT is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the safe retirement, rehabilitation and adoption of Tampa’s racing Thoroughbreds.
Golfest hours each day are from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday. Golfest Presented by Valspar is the Tampa Bay area’s largest demo day and golf expo, and golfers will be able to hit new clubs from such manufacturing companies as TaylorMade, Nike, Adams, Cobra, Callaway, Ping, Wilson and Mizuno, among others.
For details on Golfest Presented by Valspar, call (813) 854-4946.
FEBRUARY RACING SCHEDULE
Thoroughbred racing resumes Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Beginning this week, Tampa Bay Downs will conduct Thoroughbred racing five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, through March 2.
On today’s card, jockey Fernando De La Cruz -- out since Dec. 27 after breaking a bone above his right wrist in a spill -- won the 10th race on the turf, the Cody's Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, in his second day back in action. De La Cruz piloted 3-year-old filly Melora to her maiden victory for owner Arindel Farm and trainer Mandy Ness. His brother, apprentice Juan De La Cruz, won the ninth race on Hannelore, Gabriele and Billy J. Fuller's 5-year-old horse Hillbilly Trick.
Also today, trainer Michael Dini sent out two winners, both for owner Ruman Stable. Dini and Ruman won the fifth race with 6-year-old gelding Daddyspentdamoney, who was ridden by Erick Rodriguez. The trainer-owner combination won the eighth with 6-year-old gelding Azure Dragon, ridden by Daniel Centeno.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.