Slade Callaghan, who has recorded nearly 850 career wins, including 31 stakes, has been named the 2022 recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award.
The coveted Gomez Award is given to the person, Canadian-born, Canadian-raised or regular rider in the country for more than five years, who has made significant contributions to the sport.
It is named in memory of one of the sport’s most successful and revered performers. The Cuban-born Gomez died of complications after a three-horse accident in the 1980 Canadian Oaks.
To commemorate his contributions to the sport, a life-size statue of Gomez, who called Toronto home and raised a family there, keeps watch over Woodbine’s walking ring. A replica is presented to each year’s honouree.
“I was really humbled,” said Callaghan, upon receiving the news he was this year’s recipient. “I’ve been here at Woodbine 28 years and every year I’ve been here I’ve seen so many great riders, who have had amazing careers, receive this award. For me to be added to this list is overwhelming. It’s also gratifying. I don’t know where the time has gone. It’s been about 10 years since I was what I’d call semi-retired, riding a few horses, but definitely not full time. I love this racetrack and I love the people. I’m glad I made the decision to ride here.”
Callaghan, 51, has enjoyed great success over a riding career that began when he was just 16.
A natural sportsman – he excelled at tennis and squash – Callaghan launched his life in the saddle in his native Barbados, winning his first race in 1986, but a serious shoulder injury, the result of racing accident, sent him to the sidelines for nearly a year.
The setback didn’t diminish Callaghan’s affinity for horse racing or his determination to get back in the irons. Ten months after the accident he was in the winner’s circle again.
In 1994, he made decision to come to Canada with the hope of becoming a regular at Woodbine, a place where his brother, Brett, had also competed.
His first Canadian victory came at Fort Erie that same year. In 1999, Callaghan won 60 races, including six stakes. A fractured vertebra kept him out of action for only a month, and he returned to win the New Providence Stakes in 2000 when he teamed with the aptly named Matter of Courage.
After a 48-win campaign in 2000, Callaghan posted 43 victories in 2001 and 54 in 2002. One year later, he topped the $2 million plateau in purse earnings, marking the fifth straight year he reached that number. In 2004, he posted a career-best 64 wins.
Highlights include winning the 2002 Breeders’ Stakes, third jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown series, aboard Portcullis, the 2006 Incitatus Cup aboard Archeress on Barbados Day at Woodbine, as well as the 2008 Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, and 2008 Grade 3 Connaught Cup, both with Rahy’s Attorney. Another special triumph came in 2004 when he returned to ride in his homeland and won the country’s most prestigious race, the Barbados Gold Cup.
“I’ve never been a top three, top five rider, but I’ve always been a solid, hard-working rider. To be recognized with this award is truly one of the best things that I’ve experienced in my career. It really is nice and I’m very grateful for it. But for me, when I look back on my career, everything comes back to the horses and the people. That’s what’s it all about. The grooms, the hotwalkers, the valets, the gate crew, exercise riders, trainers, owners, my fellow riders, and everyone who works hard to make the races happen, I’m very appreciative of everyone and what they do. I was also extremely fortunate to have had one agent, Daren Gomez, throughout my career. I can’t think of any rider and agent in more recent times who have had that long of a relationship at Woodbine.”
Callaghan, who still picks up the odd mount at the Toronto oval, maintains his connection to the horses and horse racing by working in the barn of his wife, trainer Kelly Callaghan.
As for what the future holds, the veteran rider isn’t quite sure. The one certainty is that it will involve Thoroughbreds.
“The horses keep me coming back every day. It’s that love of horses. From the time I was a kid, I’ve had horses in my life. It will remain that way even if I leave Woodbine. Buying and selling horses, that’s what I’m leaning towards down the road. I especially love the young horses. I’ve always enjoyed working with them and they will stay a big part of my life in the next chapter.”
This year’s Avelino Gomez Memorial Award ceremony will take place on July 24 at Woodbine, on Woodbine Oaks day.
“To put on the races, it takes a village. You have to thank everyone. I was thinking about my speech on Oaks day, and the one thing that I want to acknowledge is all of the people who work to make racing at Woodbine so great. And I want to thank the horses. They are really the most amazing animals and I really appreciate the connection I have with them.”
Callaghan joins Ron Turcotte, Johnny Longden, Sandy Hawley, Don MacBeth, Chris Rogers, Jeff Fell, Lloyd Duffy, Hugo Dittfach, Robin Platts, Larry Attard, Don Seymour, David Gall, Richard Grubb, Irwin Driedger, David Clark, Jim McKnight, Chris Loseth, Richard Dos Ramos, Robert Landry, Francine Villeneuve, Sam Krasner, John LeBlanc Sr., George Ho Sang, Jack Lauzon, Robert King Jr., Stewart Elliott, Emile Ramsammy, Steve Bahen, Mickey Walls, Patrick Husbands, Quincy Welch, Gary Stahlbaum, Gary Boulanger, Emma-Jayne Wilson, Frank Barroby and Eurico Rosa da Silva as Gomez recipients.