Our friends north of the border may host live Thoroughbred racing in just four provinces, but they have outpaced North American racing in at least one area—with an outstanding groom award presented annually during the Sovereign Awards.
Inaugurated with the 2017 ceremony, the award has honored Dexter Brathwaite (2016), Alfredo Ramos (2017), Amanda Erwin (2018), Michael “Fuzzy” Williams (2019), and Michelle Gibson (2020) for exceptional dedication to the Thoroughbreds in their care.
Their names are not printed in the program, nor enshrined in a hall of fame. Yet these distinguished individuals and thousands like them serve as the sport’s hands-on heartbeat, nurturing its equine stars with skill and commitment.
Horse racing is a vastly interconnected world. Breeders deliver the goods, honing speed and stamina into generations. Owners provide the fuel of financial investment, boldly stepping up to play an exhilarating and humbling game. Trainers craft complex campaigns, managing their stables with the weight of desired success and potential failure upon their shoulders. Jockeys and exercise riders put their lives on the line every time they swing into the saddle. Racetracks, stewards and commissions, veterinarians, farriers, sales companies, consignors, agents, feed companies, assistant trainers, hotwalkers—the list goes on. Each is dependent upon the other, but most dependent are the horses themselves.
From humble claimers to champions, every runner relies upon the grooms assigned to attend to their daily needs. These are intimate studies of their charges, often first to notice the initial signs of issues which, left unchecked, could wreak career-ending damage. A meticulous nature and eye for detail go far and are in high demand. An honest trainer will tell you they are only as good as their stable staff.
Gibson, a lifelong equestrian, tends her horses with a mother’s nurturing care. In fact, she said Entourage Stable’s seven-time Sovereign Award winner Pink Lloyd —Canada’s 2017 Horse of the Year trained by Hall of Famer Robert Tiller—is like her son.
“This horse is exceptionally smart. He knows me. I get to the barn between 3:10-3:15 in the morning, and he’s the first horse that I go to,” she said. “He hears me and he comes right to the front of the stall…he watches everything that I do…he’s always aware of everywhere that I go…I just love this horse. I’m so proud of him and everything he’s done and everything he’s accomplished.”
Gibson said to be honored as the year’s outstanding groom during the Sovereign Awards brought her to tears.
“To be acknowledged—the grooms, the hotwalkers, the assistant trainers, we’re all in there early in the morning, late in the night,” she said. “There’s so much work that’s involved with taking care of one horse, or seven horses, or 45 horses…They’re my kids, so for me, it’s easy, it’s a passion, but for other people who are coming into the industry and they’re learning about horses and learning about grooming, it inspires them to be better at what they’re doing and paying attention to the little details…
“It is so nice that they’re saying, ‘Hey, the work you’re doing is great. We appreciate what you’re doing.’ And we don’t always get that. I guess we get taken for granted sometimes, that’s what a lot of grooms feel like. We’re just there and we’re part of the structure and we’re always just going to be there. But to be honored this way, it’s like someone said, ‘Hey, Michelle, you’re doing a really good job, and what you’re doing is inspiring other people,’ and that makes me feel good and it makes other people feel good.”
While great strides in recognition have been made in recent years with Godolphin’s Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards and with the “Best Turned Out Award” often sponsored by key industry organizations and presented in conjunction with major race days, it is time to add an outstanding groom award to our highest ceremony in the United States. As horse racing’s version of the Academy Awards, the Eclipse Awards have an opportunity to shine the light on those whose bonds with their horses are among the sport’s most heartwarming and sincere. There will be logistical challenges to address—data is not kept on grooms the way it is tracked for the leading breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, and horses—but the Sovereign Awards have already lit the flame, and with their model to follow, a path forward is illuminated.
Representatives of the tremendous care given to the vast majority of our equine stars deserve nothing less.