By Jeff Nations
Turns out, the best bug rider in the country plied his trade at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races last year.
Jose Montano took home top honors at last week's Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., beating out fellow nominees Irad Ortiz, Jr., and Angel Suarez to win the distinction as the country's top apprentice jockey -- a.k.a., bug boy -- in 2012. The Eclipse victory is the first-ever for a Charles Town-based person or horse, staggering to consider since the West Virginia track has been in continuous operation since opening in 1933.
Charles Town has certainly boasted it's share to top jockeys over the years -- Bill Hartack, five-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, three-time winner in the Preakness and once in the Belmont Stakes chief among a stellar group who got their start at the bull-ring oval located in the Mountain State's Eastern Panhandle.
Montano, a 26-year-old native of Mexico, accomplished what fellow Charles Town rider Luis Batista couldn't quite pull off in 2009 when he fell short as an Eclipse finalist in the apprentice jockey category. It's hard to argue with the numbers -- Montano scored 225 wins among his 1,075 starts to earn $3,613,984 nationwide in 2012. All but nine of those wins and $170,000 came at Charles Town, as Montano quickly established himself as a top rider. He won the honor as the track's winningest jockey, finishing more than 100 victories and upwards of $1 million ahead of runner-up Travis Dunkelberger. Montano finished as the leading apprentice rider in North America with 187 wins in 2012.
Montano's partnership with Charles Town's perennial leading trainer, Jeff Runco, obviously played heavily into his success. Runco has never been one to shy away from taking advantage of the bug status-- an allowance granted to apprentice jockeys which allows their mounts to carry less weight, 10 pounds before the jockey's first five wins, then 5 pounds less for a year or 40 wins (whichever comes first) after that fifth victory.
For Montano, who lost his bug status and moved up to journeyman last October, riding for Runco made a huge impact. Runco, whose 160 wins last year ranked among the top 10 nationally, entrusted the young jockey with plenty of high-pressure opportunities. More often than not, Montano came through at Charles Town.
His single winningest day for Runco came on April 27, 2012, when Montano brought home four victories on one racing card.
Montano also scored five stakes wins in 2012 at Charles Town, three of them aboard Runco's home-bred colt In the Fairway -- the Tri-State Futurity, the West Virginia Breeders' Classics Vincent Moscarelli Memorial and the Henry Mercer Memorial. In the Fairway, now running as a 3-year-old, shipped up to Aqueduct and finished fourth in Monday's $75,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes under jockey Junior Alvarado.
Montano also picked up a Breeders' Classic win aboard Runco's Waves and Tides and scored a stakes win for Charles Town trainer Ronney Brown aboard Tweenty Hawks on Oct. 19 in the West Virginia Governor's Cup.
All in all, Montano's decision to shift his base from Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort to Charles Town more than paid off for the young jockey, who is still getting regular work as a journeyman rider at the track.
It's also another feather in the cap for Charles Town, which has added plenty of them over the last calendar year. Last April, the track hosted its first-ever Grade 2 race (the $1 million Charles Town Classic, won by trainer Todd Pletcher's Caixa Eletronica). Two long-standing records also fell at Charles Town in 2012, as Good Lord erased the old seven-furlong mark last June. State-bred runner and West Virginia Breeders' Classic upset winner Lucy's Bob Boy reset the mark in at 6 1/2-furlongs, a record that had stood for 36 years, with a dazzling effort in 1:16.44 last month.
The betting window continues to stay busy, as well, as Charles Town set a new annual record for average daily handle for the second straight year and hit the seven-figure mark for the first time in the track's history.
Better horses, bigger money -- and now, an Eclipse honor for one of its jockeys. All in all, 2012 was a banner year for Charles Town.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>