NEW ORLEANS, La. - It was about half past three on a warm Tuesday afternoon when a red-cushioned carriage pulled by a shaved mule named Clyde deposited 18-year-old Tyler Baze at the corner of Dauphine and Iberville. "Did I win?" Baze asked a familiar face from beneath his big, black Stetson.
No, at least not yet. At that point it was enough that the teenager from out West had survived his first brush with the temptations of the French Quarter.
It would be a few hours before Baze would hear his name called out by his idol, Laffit Pincay Jr., as winner of the Eclipse Award for leading apprentice jockey of the year 2000. Tyler's young cowboy swagger melted away in sobs of joy as he stood on the stage of the ornate Saenger Theater, setting a tone for the evening that ranged from bittersweet to downright apologetic.
"This is so weird," Baze said at one point.
He got that right. The surreal politics of the racing game were never more apparent than on Tuesday night, when even the host city fit the theme of stark contrasts.
Outside on Canal Street, sidewalk vendors hawked woolen ski caps and gaudy trinkets from behind wobbly tables as the Eclipse guests and honorees filed down a red carpet and into the old New Orleans splendor of the Saenger.
The show opened with a pulsing video montage from producer Dave Bruner, backed by U2's "Beautiful Day" and bursting with faces from the best moments of 2000.
Too bad the rest of the evening's recorded musical accompaniment left rock in the dust and lapsed into what generously can be described as "processional awards lite," especially since the graceful dignity of the John Forsythe days as Eclipse Awards emcee has been replaced by the hip wit and droll delivery of Kenny Mayne.
Mayne, who is proud to spend part of his ESPN paycheck at the racetrack, has turned irreverent deadpan into an art form not seen since the days of Jackie Vernon.
It was Mayne who dried the eyes after Tyler Baze left the stage with a quick, "They're so cute at that age." It was Mayne who followed Eclipse Award of Merit winner and TV legend Jim McKay to the stage with the sheepish, "You've just gone from a Hall of Famer to someone who cheated his way through the Connecticut School of Broadcasting."
And it was Mayne who sent out for an order of Popeye's chicken to be delivered to the table of Frank Stronach, in an effort, as Mayne put it, "to be like Jimmy Carter in the Middle East," and attempt to bring peace to the warring factions of Stronach's Magna Entertainment tracks and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, producer and co-sponsor of the awards dinner.
That Popeye's must be finger-lickin' good, because not once did Stronach let slip any one of the four Eclipse Awards he won during the night.
"He's going to get his name in the paper," Mayne said after number four.
Stronach was gracious in his many acceptances, deferring credit for the breeder award to his son Andy, and praising his primary trainer, Joe Orseno.
But Stronach is still badly in need of a humor transplant. At one point - after insisting, "I like people with strong opinions better than people with no opinions" - he let slip his deepest desires and observed that "there are a lot of racetracks out there to buy."
That gave Tom Meeker, head of Churchill Downs Inc., a fat pitch over the middle when he came to the stage to introduce Jim McKay:
"I know at least a couple of tracks, Frank, that are not for sale."
That said, Meeker got on with his homage to McKay, which included a video highlight reel of the 13-time Emmy winner and lifelong racing fan. McKay's indelible mark on the Triple Crown was underlined by W.T. Young's reaction on the winner's stand following the victory of Grindstone in the 1996 Kentucky Derby:
"I've waited a long time just to greet you here," Young told McKay that day.
McKay confessed that he was "totally and utterly shocked" when informed he would receive the Award of Merit.
"I'm not a part of the sport," he said. "I just talk about it."
But McKay has meant more than just pretty words. He has been an eloquent painter of some of racing's brightest - and darkest - moments, not to mention his role as father of the successful Maryland Million back in his home state, where he has raised and raced Thoroughbreds.
Like McKay and his fellow Maryland breeders, the California region has been mostly left on the outside looking in when the Eclipse Awards came around. Tuesday night, for the first time in 44 years, things were different.
Michael Cooper, who bred and raced Tiznow with the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens, picked up where Rex Ellsworth left off in 1956 with Swaps. That was the last time a California-bred was elected Horse of the Year. Cooper was properly humbled as he acknowledged Tiznow's jockey, Chris McCarron, his trainer, Jay Robbins, and his partner, who died just three days after Tiznow's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"For your love of horses, and for your eternal optimism, thank you Cee," Cooper said. "We miss you dearly."
Mayne had no wisecrack for that. A good host never upstages his best guest. The awards had ended and Mayne closed the evening with the benediction that has already become his trademark.
"Good night everyone," he said, then added, "Trainers and jockeys - 5 a.m."