Charlie Marquez spends much of his time on the racetrack seeking the connections that will make the difference in a race.
Many of the connections he has forged in his short stay at Tampa Bay Downs are with trainers who give him the opportunity to display his talent. But Marquez, who turned 21 Thursday, credits an unraced 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding named Mast Strike for driving home the importance of the unspoken communication riders must develop to get the most from their horses.
The duo competed throughout the mid-Atlantic in amateur flat races and steeplechase events beginning when Marquez was 14, making names for themselves with their dominance of the competition. Mast Strike still lives at Pleasant Prospect Farm in Maryland, owned by the rider’s mother, Valerie Kounelis.
“Mast Strike was a baby and I was learning when we started out, so we taught each other everything,” said Marquez, whose rise to third place with 16 victories in the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings earned him the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award.
“Up and down hills, left and right turns, he was unbeatable. He was always safe and he always gave me confidence,” Marquez said. “He taught me patience, he taught me to have quiet hands and he taught me that you have to have a connection with your horse if you want to win.
“If you’re patient with them and can get them to relax and get them into their stride, and you have that connection where you’re not in their way, they’ll give you something.”
As a youngster, Marquez had no shortage of positive influences. His father, Carlos H. Marquez, Jr., rode more than 3,000 winners, excelling in Maryland, Illinois and numerous other venues over a 35-year career before retiring in 2021. Charlie’s late grandfather, Carlos Marquez, Sr., was also a successful jockey who ran Puerto Rico’s Escuela Vocacional Hipica Jockey School, a post now filled by Marquez, Jr.
While his father was elsewhere winning races, Charlie grew up in Columbia, Md., with his mother and his older brother Carlos, who currently works for AmTote. Kounelis, a veterinary technician and long-time exercise rider, galloped horses on the racetrack up to two days before Charlie’s birth.
Charlie is grateful to both parents for their contributions to helping him get to where he’s at. He is in regular communication with them for sage advice, even as he develops into the kind of man they can admire.
“I watched my dad ride my whole life on TV,” Charlie said. “He’s the best rider I’ve ever seen, and he taught me from a distance. My mom was the one who was always there when I was young, giving me opportunities with the horses.
“My dad taught me more as a role model and my mom taught me as a teacher. She’d drive me up and down the road to compete, and she’d be there at 11 p.m. to pick me up.”
In a sport in which an 18-percent win rate is considered exceptional, it might be a stretch to say Charlie was destined to succeed. Still, the early returns are impressive. He won his first race in 2020 at Laurel Park a couple of weeks before turning 17, and he was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Champion Apprentice Jockey in 2021, the same year he won the combined spring-summer meet at Pimlico with 49 winners.
But after winning 139 races in 2021, Charlie struggled. Back-to-back years in which he won on fewer than 10 percent of his starters led to the decision to try to regain momentum at Tampa Bay Downs, and after a slow start, he is fitting in like he’s ridden here for decades.
Those who work with him on a daily basis credit a positive attitude and strong work ethic for his ability to win races on different kinds of horses, going long and short on dirt and turf. “He’s always learning,” said his agent, former jockey Jose Angel Garcia. “You can suggest after a race that he do something different the next time, and he does it. He’s a very talented rider with good finesse and is willing to work hard to achieve his goals.”
Trainer Arnaud Delacour says Marquez is willing to put in the work in the mornings to get on the same wavelength with his mounts. “I don’t know if I would call him a horse whisperer, but he definitely has a sense of what good horsemanship is,” Delacour said.
“Each jockey has his own forte, but the best ones connect well with horses. He likes them, and that is definitely a plus,” Delacour said. “He wants to breeze horses all the time, and he has a good way with people and a professionalism that speaks for itself.”
Marquez has never seen the classic 1944 movie National Velvet, in which actress Elizabeth Taylor portrays Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old who rides her own horse The Pie to a shocking upset in the Grand National while disguised as a male rider. But like Velvet, Marquez freely admits his heart “skips a beat” in the presence of equines.
“They (the horses) have taken me out of a lot of dark times. They are always there for you, always,” Marquez said. “They’ll never turn their back on you. I love the horses. I don’t really do this as a job – I just love to ride and I love racing. You could take away the money from me and tell me to ride them and I would, because I want to win for my horses.”
Julie Hutchison, the Oldsmar assistant to trainer Tim Hamm, is impressed by Marquez’s thorough preparation that imbues him with a belief he is going to win every race, no matter what the form or the pundits say. “He’ll come into the paddock confident he is on the best horse in the race, even when he isn’t,” Hutchison said. “He’s like, ‘I got this.’ He likes all of his horses, even the cheap ones. He’ll come over and talk to them and pet on them and ask their grooms how they’re doing.
“It’s not just on race day – he wants to know they’re happy the other times.”
Since last July, Marquez has won three races on (now)-5-year-old Florida-bred mare Liking It Twisted for trainer Kerri Raven, including an exciting neck victory here on Dec. 27. “He’s their friend,” Raven said. “He’ll come up to Liking It Twisted at the barn and say ‘How’s my girl doing?’ His passion for them comes out every morning.
“Charlie always gives me a lot of feedback, and he’s easy to talk to. He just has a way of figuring out quickly how a horse wants to be ridden,” Raven said. “At Delaware Park, there are a lot of trails leading back to the barn, and I think he’d be happy just riding back there all day.”
Marquez enjoys interacting with the trainers who prepare Thoroughbreds for top performances. “You want to do what the trainer tells you to do in a race, because they know their horses better than anybody else,” he said. “But you want to have your own picture of what can happen in a race.
“Sometimes they’ll tell you to go out there and ride it like you ride it, and that’s where preparation comes into play – using your brain, putting the horse where they belong, knowing the pace and how things are going to set up for you.”
Marquez is appreciative of the support and constructive criticism he has received from the veteran jockeys in the Tampa Bay Downs room, knowing every race affords him a new learning opportunity.
“Of course I look up to the (older) jockeys, but I’m not scared of riding with anyone,” he said. “I think I fit in anywhere I go.”
Marquez’s goals are lofty, and he’s not afraid to speak them out loud. He wants to be a regular on the New York and Kentucky circuits, he wants to ride in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup races and he wants to construct a Hall of Fame career.
Tampa Bay Downs, he believes, is the right place for him now, but he knows where he is headed and expects the horses to help him get there, day by day, one race at a time.
“Learning from your mistakes and fixing them can take you places,” he said. “Listening to what people have to say, not acting like you know everything. … you take every bit of information that you can, whether you agree with it or not, and then you take the parts you agree with and put that forward. And maybe somebody else says something that you agree with, so you put that forward and try to make everything work together.”
Around the oval. No bettor hit the late 50-cent Pick-5 wager today, creating a carryover pool of $38,513 into Saturday. The winning combination was 3-2-4-1-4. Saturday’s late Pick-5, which requires bettors to select the winners of five consecutive races, will begin with the fifth race.
There is also a Super High 5 carryover pool of $16,600 into Saturday for the first race with seven or more entrants. The Super High 5 requires bettors to pick the first five finishers of a race in order.
British jockey Sean Levey, a Group I winner in England and France who currently is based at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino, won today’s first race on 8-year-old gelding Dazzling Truths, the rider’s first North American victory. Dazzling Truths is owned by Clearmar Racing and trained by Victor Russo.
Levey is first-call rider in England for trainer Richard Hannon.
Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs with a nine-race card beginning at 12:20 p.m. The gates open at 10:30 a.m. Saturday is Cap Giveaway Day, with each patron receiving a new maroon Tampa Bay Downs cap with powder-blue lettering free of charge (with paid admission) while supplies last.
Members of the Oldsmar jockeys colony will be on hand throughout the races on the first floor of the Grandstand to autograph the headgear.
Tampa Bay Downs will simulcast the entire Pegasus World Cup Invitational Day card from Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The 13-race program features seven graded stakes, including a pair of Grade Is: the $1-million 1/ST BET Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, scheduled as the 12th race, and the $3-million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes presented by Baccarat, which is the 13th.
Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.