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February 26, 2018

JOSE FERRER WINS THE GEORGE WOOLF MEMORIAL JOCKEY AWARD

by Mike Henry
He is the 69th winner of the award valued most by jockeys across the nation.

Tampa Bay Downs jockey Jose Ferrer has been named as the 2018 recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, Santa Anita Park officials announced today.

The Woolf Award, which jockeys can win only once, honors a rider whose career and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing. It is decided by a vote of active jockeys across the country.

Ferrer, a 53-year-old Tampa resident, was one of five finalists, defeating Javier Castellano, Alex Birzer, Joe Talamo and Rodney Prescott.

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George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner Jose Ferrer with his wife, Steffi, and their sons Derek, left, and Joseph (courtesy SV Photography)

“It means the world to have the guys I’ve ridden with throughout my career vote for me,” said Ferrer, whose phone has been flooded with congratulatory text messages since the honor was announced. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. When I learned I had won, I was up all night with my wife Steffi, just to thank God for this opportunity and for my peers to consider me worthy of the award.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to be with all those great riders and Hall of Famers who have won the Woolf Award,” Ferrer added. “It’s a blessing from God. I’ve never accomplished anything like this in my career. I give so much credit to God and to my wife, because after I married Steffi and started to get closer to God, things started to turn around for the best and more doors started opening.

“I took a lot of things for granted before, but I see things differently now and I believe you just have to keep trying in life and stay positive.”

The award came slightly more than five months after it seemed his career might be over because of injuries suffered in a multi-horse spill at Delaware Park. Ferrer incurred a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae.

“It’s a well-deserved honor,” said Heriberto Rivera, Jr., the Jockeys’ Guild Regional Manager who nominated Ferrer for the award. “First of all, his longevity speaks for itself. He has to be the fittest 53-year-old person there is; I thought it would take at least six months for him to come back (after his spill), and he was back in two months like it was nothing.

“Jose has always been known to help the young kids coming into the profession, at least those who will listen, and he has always taken a leadership role in the jockeys’ room wherever he has ridden,” Rivera said. “He knows that the game has been very good to him and that it takes nothing to give something back.”

The 69th Woolf Award Trophy, a replica of the life-sized statue of Woolf that has adorned Santa Anita’s Paddock Gardens area since 1949, will be presented to Ferrer in a winner’s-circle ceremony at the Arcadia, Calif., racetrack on an as-yet to be determined date this spring.

“For any Thoroughbred jockey, winning the George Woolf Award is probably the highlight of that jockey’s career,” said Terry Meyocks, National Manager of the Jockeys’ Guild. “To be acknowledged by his peers as a rider who has maintained remarkable standards both on and off the track is quite an accomplishment.

“Jose is richly deserving of this honor, and on behalf of our membership, I wholeheartedly congratulate him and his family.”

The award is named for the legendary jockey known as “The Iceman,” who is probably best-known to modern horse racing fans as the jockey who rode Seabiscuit to victory in the famous 1938 match race against War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown champion, at Pimlico in Baltimore, an event immortalized in Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the subsequent movie.

Woolf, who was born in Cardston, Alberta, Canada in 1910, is considered one of the greatest stakes riders of all time. In addition to his success with Seabiscuit, he won such major races as the Preakness, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Arlington Handicap, Hopeful, Hollywood Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, Coaching Club American Oaks and Brooklyn.

Considered a friend to all horsemen, Woolf was a jockey who always gave 100-percent effort no matter the importance of the race or the ability of his mount. His integrity and honesty were unquestioned, and fans idolized him throughout his career.

Woolf met a tragic end in 1946 when he fell from his mount in a race at Santa Anita and struck the ground headfirst. He died from a brain concussion the following morning without regaining consciousness.

Santa Anita’s statue of Woolf is about 50 yards from a life-size sculpture of Seabiscuit inside the track’s walking ring.

Ferrer, who was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico and began his stateside career in 1982 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, considers it natural to want to pass along his knowledge of the sport to riders who become his rivals the moment the starting-gate bell clangs.

“God blessed me with this talent, so I want to bless everybody else,” he has frequently said. “The more you bless somebody else, the more God is going to bless you back.” That philosophy reflects a continuation of the help he received on his way up from Hall of Fame greats and previous Woolf Award recipients Angel Cordero, Jr., and Jorge Velasquez, as well as from Ferrer’s uncle, Carlos Lopez, Sr., and a cousin, Charles C. Lopez (Lopez, Sr.’s son), both successful riders.

Ferrer and his wife have two sons, 3-year-old Derek and 2-year-old Joseph. Ferrer also has two adult daughters, Christina and Kelly. His parents, Jose Ferrer, Sr., and Carmen, “who have always been there for me,” still live in Puerto Rico.

Ferrer attributes his outstanding physical condition and longevity to working out every day with Steffi in the garage they have converted into a mini-gym and to riding a bicycle on off-days, with Derek and Joseph aboard in a cart.

That attention to conditioning, he says, is what enabled him to return to action so quickly after such a serious accident. Doctors told him the best-case scenario was that he might return to action in January or February; some observers wondered why he would risk returning to the saddle at all.

Ferrer defied the skeptics, returning to action on Dec. 1 and getting back to the winner’s circle on Dec. 6 with his fourth mount back, the Keith Nations-trained filly Jermyn Street. He is sixth in the current Tampa Bay Downs standings with 26 victories, including three last weekend from four mounts, and his career mark of 4,215 winners ranks 62nd all-time and 24th among active jockeys (his cousin, Charles C. Lopez, is directly ahead of him on the active list).

“Being a jockey is not a job for him,” observed Steffi, who met Jose almost five years ago when he was riding at Monmouth Park and she was working as a hotwalker. “His motivation to keep going strong comes from his love of the sport and his desire to take care of his family.”

“I just enjoy so much my two boys watching me ride, getting to watch me by the fence. That is what keeps me going the most, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Ferrer said.

“It’s awesome to hear your kids cheering for you. Don’t get me wrong – if something were wrong, I would stop. But a couple of weeks after I came home from the hospital, I realized my body was healing really well, and I was feeling so good that I said ‘You know what, I’m going to keep going.’

“I work out every day, I’m strong physically and I can still compete with the kids. So why should I quit when I’m on top of the world right now?”

 Ferrer also enjoys delighting the patrons who have bet on him and those who remember him from his earlier years as a rider in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, as well as in Illinois. He often takes the time to talk to railbirds after a race, sign autographs and pose for pictures, even when he rode an also-ran.

“He’s the biggest ham there is and the fans love him. You see him when he wins a race, throwing kisses to everybody,” Rivera said. “He loves the spotlight and he shows his excitement every time he wins a race.”

“I’ve always had a great relationship with the fans,” Ferrer said. “My uncle always told me to be good with them, because they are the ones backing you and that’s the way we make a living. What’s it take to say hello and sign a program and maybe make somebody’s day, anyway – 30 seconds?

“I’ve had a lot of people here at Tampa Bay Downs come up to me and say they took a picture of me with their kid somewhere 20 years ago, or signed their program, or gave them a pair of goggles. And it’s awesome to see how much it meant to them.”

Trainers marvel at Ferrer’s ongoing ability to get the most out of his horses. “Jose is just magical on the front end,” said Keith Nations. “The horses just keep running for him. Plus, he is an absolutely amazing athlete. He’s fitter than the horses.”

His vast experience enables Ferrer to assist trainers he rides for with keen observations and solid advice, but he is never overbearing in his approach and not given to excuses. To quote Kipling, Ferrer “…can meet with Triumph and Disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same.”

“He is an even better human being than he is a rider,” Nations said. “I absolutely love winning races with Jose because he is such a good person. For as long as he’s been doing it, his enthusiasm every day is incredible. You never see him without a smile. I don’t think we fully realize how lucky we are to be around him every day.”

Again, Ferrer is quick to credit those who lifted him as a much younger man with his ability to connect with racetrack people from all backgrounds, beliefs and ages. “I had an agent coming up, Jose Morales, who was a great mentor and taught me how to be a gentleman and a good person and to stay humble,” recalled Ferrer, who is represented locally by Steve Worsley.

“That’s why I tell a lot of the younger riders to try to do the best they can and just be themselves. You can’t accomplish anything without a good horse, I don’t care what anyone says.”

Ferrer, who stamped himself as a force to be reckoned with at age 19 by becoming the first jockey to win five races on a single card at the Meadowlands in New Jersey on Nov. 24, 1983, has ridden a boatful of good horses. His major stakes victories include the Grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga on Stormy Pick in 2000; the 2000 Sorority Stakes, also with Stormy Pick; the 2011 Bay Shore with J J’s Lucky Train; the 2001 Jersey Shore Breeders’ Cup Stakes with City Zip; the 1995 Cotillion Handicap with Clear Mandate; the 1994 W.L. McKnight Handicap with Cobblestone Road; the 1994 Boiling Springs Handicap with Avie’s Fancy; the 1991 New Hampshire Sweepstakes with Double Booked; and the 1990 Monmouth Park Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap on Topicount.

Ferrer rode also-ran Hegar in the 1993 Preakness, his lone Triple Crown appearance. In 2003, he won the inaugural Angel Cordero Jr. Jockey Challenge in the Clasico Internacional del Caribe festival at Camarero in Puerto Rico, a competition among riders from six nations.

“My next goal is to find something hopefully for the Derby,” he said. The Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 10 at Tampa Bay Downs, right?

“Well, that would be great. But I mean the big Derby,” he said, smiling.

Here is the full list of George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winners:

1950—Gordon Glisson; 1951—Bill Shoemaker; 1952—John Longden; 1953—Eddie Arcaro; 1954—Ralph Neves; 1955—Ray York; 1956—John Adams; 1957—Ted Atkinson; 1958—Merlin Volzke; 1959—Bill Boland; 1960—Bill Harmatz; 1961—Peter Moreno; 1962—Steve Brooks; 1963—Ismael Valenzuela; 1964—Manuel Ycaza; 1965—Walter Blum; 1966—Alex Maese; 1967—Donald Pierce; 1968—Braulio Baeza; 1969—John Sellers; 1970—Laffit Pincay, Jr.; 1971—Jerry Lambert; 1972—Angel Cordero, Jr.; 1973—John Rotz; 1974—Alvaro Pineda; 1975—Fernando Toro; 1976—Sandy Hawley; 1977—Frank Olivares; 1978—Darrel McHargue; 1979—Ron Turcotte; 1980—Chris McCarron; 1981—Eddie Delahoussaye; 1982—Patrick Valenzuela; 1983—Marco Castaneda; 1984—Steve Cauthen; 1985—Pat Day; 1986—Jorge Velasquez; 1987—Don MacBeth; 1988—Don Brumfield; 1989—Larry Snyder; 1990—John Lively; 1991—Earlie Fires; 1992—Jerry Bailey; 1993—Kent Desormeaux; 1994—Phil Grove; 1995—Edward Maple; 1996—Gary Stevens; 1997—Alex Solis; 1998—Craig Perret; 1999—Jose Santos; 2000—Mike Smith; 2001—Dean Kutz; 2002—Russell Baze; 2003—Edgar Prado; 2004—Robby Albarado; 2005—Ray Sibille; 2006—Mark Guidry; 2007—Jon Court; 2008—Richard Migliore; 2009—John Velazquez; 2010—Calvin Borel; 2011—Garrett Gomez; 2012—Ramon Dominguez; 2013—Mario Pino; 2014—Corey Lanerie; 2015—Mike Luzzi; 2016—Victor Espinoza; 2017—Stewart Elliott; 2018—JOSE FERRER