a night of excellence

By Dick Jerardi

The wind had been swirling in the afternoon. There were snow squalls. It was below freezing.

Inside at Celebrations in Bensalem on Saturday night, however, there was a celebration two years in the making after last year’s Horsemen’s Awards Banquet was not held due to the pandemic. This was a night to celebrate the horses and people that made 2021 at Parx Racing so memorable.

The video tributes and Special Achievement awards for recently retired Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA) executive director Mike Ballezzi and PTHA office manager Connie Youmans led off the evening expertly hosted by Dani Gibson whose inspiring words set a wonderful tone.

“We live off these highs and the glimmer of hope for the next race because there’s nothing better than seeing your horse cross the wire first when it’s official and it’s even better when that check clears,’’ Gibson said. “So our awards tagline is `A Night of Excellence’ and excellence is what this past year has been at Parx.’’

PTHA President Sal DeBunda spoke from Florida where he is recovering from an upper respiratory infection. His heartfelt comments focused on what has been and what will be.

“The benefits that the members of the PTHA receive thanks to the members of our board (health care and pensions among others)…all of us should be thankful that we have those,’’ DeBunda said. “I also want to look forward to the new year and the years ahead…There are still matters to be resolved in our industry…but you can be assured that our board, our staff, and I are working very hard to not only deal with those issues but to make Parx Racing and the PTHA an even better and more vibrant organization than it has been.’’

New PTHA executive director Jeff Matty, who has absolutely hit the ground running, was eloquent and passionate in his remarks about the horsemen, the board, the PTHA staff, and the sport.

“We will continue to build at Parx on a colony of horsemen and horsewomen who put the horse first,’’ Matty said.

“’We must continue to fight for that and champion the belief and vision…There are many names in your program tonight that achieved the highest of highs on our local oval…Your successes are what we strive for and I applaud each and every one of you…This awards banquet is a culmination of not just a year’s worth of work, but many years and for some, a lifetime’s worth of work in this sport and this industry…We’re all in this race together, not just for the ups and downs, but for the journey along the way. So whether you’re taking home one trophy or two trophies or no trophies at all, here’s to working for that next start, that next race, the next time the gates open and anything is possible.’’

The last award of the night was also the least surprising. The brilliant, now 5-year-old mare Chub Wagon was an overwhelming choice for 2021 Horse of the Year. She was 8-for-9 with a second in 2021, winning six stakes and nearly $500,000.

“I knew she could run, but I didn’t know how good she could be,’’ said co-breeder and co-owner Danny Lopez.

Lopez has owned, bred, and trained some very good horses in his career. Chub Wagon, he said, is “No. 1.’’

Chub Wagon (also named top older female) has spent the winter at Patty Hogan’s Cream Ridge Farm in New Jersey and is due back at the barn of Parx Hall of Famer Lupe Preciado at the end of April or May. The connections are contemplating different 2022 racing plans for Chub Wagon. At some point, perhaps after this racing season or next, Lopez said the plan would be to sell Chub Wagon as a broodmare prospect.

Jamie Ness, who dominated the trainers’ standings for a second consecutive year, spent the most time getting his picture taken on the night, not unlike a race day at Parx. Ness had 186 winners from 554 starters at Parx in 2021, a cool 34 percent. The trainer was in the picture for his own award as well for those of his divisional winners – Thorny Tale (outstanding claim), Magic Michael (older male) – leading owner (Morris Kernan Jr, Yo Berbs, and Jagger, Inc who were responsible for 51 wins) and winningest horse (Sevier was 9-for-10 in 2021).

Ruben Silvera got out to a big early lead in the jockey’s race and never looked back, winning his first Parx title with 217 wins from 912 mounts. That he rode first call for Ness did not hurt.

Mario Dominguez (31 wins) was the leading “B’’ trainer

and Jonathan Ocasio (23 wins) was the top apprentice rider.

Trainer Butch Reid, who had the best year of his career and was elected to the Parx Hall of Fame in 2021, had two divisional winners – Disco Ebo (2-year-old filly) and Beren (3-year-old colt).

Dance Code (trainer Juan Vazquez) was the top 2-year-old male while the John Servis trained Leader of the Band was named best 3-year-old filly. Sweet Willemina, trained by Scott Lake, was the winner of the best claiming horse category.

The turnout at Celebrations was as spectacular as the performances by the humans and their horses had been in 2021. Now, we look forward to what is to come i 2022.

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