Groom Recognition Program Hits Its Stride

A groom recognition program that began Thanksgiving Day 2021 at Laurel Park truly established itself in 2022 and is continuing into the new year.

On all live racing days at Laurel and Pimlico Race Course, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Maryland Jockey Club fund the “Best Turned Out Award” in every race as a way to show appreciation for the time and effort shown by those who bring the horses to the paddock. The program has become so popular that there’s even a little competition among the grooms.

Phoebe Hayes, who handles horsemen’s relations for the MJC, has overseen the program from the start and keeps daily records. She said that in 2022 almost 340 individual grooms won at least once. Winners receive a $25 gift card each race, and on select days sponsors provide $100 gift cards per race.

Michele Enck, the MJC Horse Identifier, handles most of the judging, though sponsors are offered the opportunity to assist on their given days.

“It really gives you an appreciation for the grooms that love their jobs,” Hayes said. “You see how much they care for and love their horses. They are constantly saying ‘thank you’ to me’ and they genuinely know we truly appreciate them. They get creative, too. I’m amazed how hard they try for a $25 award. They’ve been really stepping up to the plate.”

Hayes, who is in the paddock for each race, noted that members of the public will talk to her, ask questions, and comment when horses are on the scale. “Everyone is enjoying this,” she said, “and even the public is noticing.”

The MJC has used the program to create Groom of the Year awards, which are sponsored by Rscapes Landscaping. The 2022 top three are Cesar Cruz with 69 recognitions, followed by David Gallegos with 32 and Javier Cruz with 28. For first place, there is a $300 gift card and a crystal trophy with donated engraving from Allogram; the second- and third-place finishers will each receive $100.

Cesar Cruz, son of Javier Cruz, brings over most of the horses trained by John Salzman Sr. Javier Cruz does the same from John Salzman Jr.  Gallegos, who now works at Dr. Alex Diaz’s To Win Again Farm, earlier handled horses for several trainers including Milan Milosevic.

There also are awards for the top three grooms by number of recognitions during each designated meet: $200 for first, $100 for second and $50 for third.

Hayes reached out early on for sponsors and attempts to have one or two sponsored days per month. The response has been encouraging.

“I’m so proud of the sponsor program,” Hayes said. “I tried it to see if we could get support for it. In some cases people reached out to me to sponsor a day, and in some cases I reached out to them.”

The program began as a horsemen’s initiative suggested by Aidan Butler, Chief Executive Officer of 1/ST Racing and Gaming (The Stronach Group). MJC Acting President and General Manager Mike Rogers then asked Hayes to put together a structure for it.

“The grooms are the backbone of the equine industry, dedicating themselves to the care and well-being of these magnificent animals,” Rogers said. “The Best Turned Out Award is a way for us to acknowledge and honor their hard work and dedication. These individuals truly deserve recognition for their tireless efforts in ensuring the horses they tend to are always looking their best.”

The MTHA will soon announce its 2022 Grooms of the Year for Laurel and Pimlico. They will be recognized as part of the Renaissance Awards this spring.

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