Among the graded races offered on the California stakes schedule, 22 are named for well-known horses, 14 honor a variety of owners, trainers, racetrack executives and celebrities, and two are named for jockeys. One of those jockeys is Bill Shoemaker. The other is Eddie Delahoussaye.
The Eddie D Stakes highlights the opening-day card at Santa Anita on Friday. Normally, such a Grade 3 event worth $100,000 at 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course is little more than a blip on the racing radar. But because of its place on the calendar, the Eddie D offers West Coast sprinters a chance to earn a berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint five weeks later, not to mention a trophy adorned with the name of Eddie Delahoussaye.
Delahoussaye's last appearance in white pants was at Del Mar on Aug. 30, 2002. The horse he was riding in a race on the grass broke down and sent the jockey sliding head first along the backstretch. The horse didn't make it, but somehow Delahoussaye survived, with injuries to his neck, hip, and foot. He was just shy of 51 at the time.
Four months later, Delahoussaye announced his retirement, citing the ongoing effects of nerve damage to his neck. It was a bitter end, for in a perfect world he would have gone out on his own terms, in a race of his choosing, like fellow Hall of Famers Chris McCarron and Pat Day were able to do. Instead, Delahoussaye said his good-byes from the ground, his numbers frozen in time the moment that horse went down.
And what numbers they were. As 2003 dawned, Delahoussaye's 6,383 wins ranked 11th on the all-time list, while his mount earnings of $195.8 million were sixth best in the history of the game. He won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Belmont Stakes twice, a national championship in wins, and a cluster of seven Breeders' Cup events in nine years, including two Sprints, the Turf, two Distaffs, and the Classic.
To this day, Delahoussaye's named is summoned with a kind of reverence saved for writers and artists whose high standards never wavered. Young jocks who didn't have to deal with the mind-messing Delahoussaye on the lead hear tales fit for a spooky campfire. Their older colleagues still get the cold sweats imagining the "hunh-hunh-hunh" grunts coming from Eddie D as he closed on them like Jaws at lunchtime.
Then again, Delahoussaye had to be that good. When he settled in California in 1979 he had to contend with Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Sandy Hawley, the fresh-faced McCarron, and teenage Pat Valenzuela. Through his peak earning years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the room was enhanced by Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Chris Antley, and Alex Solis. By the time of his retirement, Delahoussaye was dealing with Mike Smith, Garrett Gomez, and Victor Espinoza, as well as a reinvigorated Pincay.
Any other year, Delahoussaye would have been front and center to present the trophy to the winner of the Eddie D. He's been under the weather lately, though, forcing him to miss not only Santa Anita's opening day, but also recent sales in Kentucky and California, where he would have been found at the side of his friend and bloodstock client Aron Wellman, head of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.
When Delahoussaye answered the phone the other day, a rooster could be heard crowing in the background.
"I'm at a barn, visiting my cousin," Eddie said. "He's got some horses."
Okay, so you can go home again. After more than three decades as a Southern Californian, Delahoussaye is back in New Iberia, not far from his rural southwestern Louisiana birthplace. Now 15 years retired, he pays enough attention to the sport to know its current problems have been a long time in the making. One of his passions is reigniting the interest of racing patrons - both owners and fans - who have gone by the wayside.
"How are you going to make fans or owners if you don't get them to the races?" Delahoussaye said. "And the game has spent the last 25 years making it easier for people not to come."
When it comes to riding talent, Delahoussaye looks at his own backyard and worries that even a breeding ground like Louisiana is drying up.
"There's no match racing any more," he said, harking to the days when local youngsters cut their teeth riding half-broke Quarter Horses down breakneck straightaways. "Because of that, trainers are having a lot of trouble finding exercise riders, never mind young jockeys. There's no place for them to learn."
At least there are plenty of Eddie D. highlights on videotape. He rode the hill at Santa Anita enough to know that the turns, the dips, and the patch of main track at the top of the stretch make for a unique challenge.
"It's a course that makes you use your brain," he said. "You have to pay attention."
Delahoussaye said he'd be watching the races at home Friday afternoon when they run the Eddie D, with the field topped by Om, Rocket Heat, and the filly Prize Exhibit. But if he's among the absent, who'll do the honors after the race?
"That's a good question," Delahoussaye said. "I really don't know how many people even know me anymore."
Don't worry. The line forms on the right.