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January 14, 2015


by Mike Henry
Fernando De La Cruz keeps a steady course to become Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.

Among Tampa Bay Downs fans and handicappers, jockey Fernando De La Cruz was a forgotten man during the first full month of the 2014-2015 meeting.

Going 4-for-71 will do that to a rider. But the 28-year-old native of Peru knew the only way to regain his accustomed spot in the upper tier of the Oldsmar standings was to adhere to a consistent work ethic and wait for his regular outfits to find the right conditions for their horses.

After his performance last weekend, when he rode five winners, consider De La Cruz back where he belongs. Now fourth in the standings with 15 victories, De La Cruz has been chosen as the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.

De La Cruz has won 11 races from 51 mounts since his early-meeting struggles.

“It (going through dry spells) is part of the business,” said De La Cruz, who won the 2014 Indiana Grand Race Course jockeys’ title with 130 victories en route to finishing 32nd in North America with 178 winners. “It happens to everybody. I just had to keep doing what I was doing, work hard every day and wait for my opportunities to come.”

A number of those opportunities came from the barn of trainer Jason DaCosta, for whom De La Cruz rode three winners last weekend. On today’s card, De La Cruz won the second race on 5-year-old gelding Twocubanbrothersu for current leading trainer Gerald Bennett.

Staying on an even keel every day is one of De La Cruz’s major strong points. He started the 2013-2014 Tampa Bay Downs meeting by riding 20 winners from his first 48 mounts before fracturing a bone near his wrist in a race accident, causing him to miss several weeks, but managed to finish fourth in the final standings with 66 victories.

One of three riding De La Cruz brothers – his older brother, Juan, is at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, and younger brother Walter is at Oaklawn Park – Fernando has more than 1,200 career victories.

“Fernando handled (his slow start this season) a lot better than I did,” said agent Don Cespedes, who is the godfather to De La Cruz’s 4-year-old son, Brian. “He knows a lot of times you have to be patient and wait for a horse’s condition to come back. The people he was riding for weren’t winning races, but his attitude didn’t change a bit. I was pulling my hair out, but he knew there was nothing he could do except keep working hard and wait for things to turn around.”

De La Cruz, who has been with Cespedes for about five years, appreciates the support he receives from the agent and trainers such as DaCosta and Barbara McBride. He also looks to countrymen such as Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano for inspiration and knowledge.

“I just want to keep getting the chance to ride better horses, and (Cespedes) is working hard to help that happen,” said De La Cruz. “This is a long meet, and you have to be able to relax when you aren’t winning races and concentrate on your job. Don has become a part of our family (De La Cruz and his wife Rosa also have a 2-year-old daughter, Norma) and we work together as a team.”

On today’s card, leading trainer Gerald Bennett won with both of his starters. In addition to Twocubanbrothersu, Bennett won the third race with breeder-owner W. Kenan Rand, Jr.’s 3-year-old colt This Boy’s Sharp.

That was one of two victories on the card for jockey Daniel Centeno, who also won the first race on first-time starter Or Sunday for breeder-owner World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., and trainer Chad Stewart. Or Sunday paid $47.60 to win.

Jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., also rode two winners back-to-back in the fifth and sixth races. Allen was aboard 7-year-old gelding Jersey Blue Giant for owner MCR Stable, Inc., and trainer Benny Feliciano in the fifth. Allen returned to the winner’s circle a race later on 6-year-old mare Moonshine Promise – a horse he won on at Keeneland in October – for owner-trainer Aldana Gonzalez.  

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:30 p.m. The track will conduct racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through January before adding Thursdays to the mix in February.

Saturday is Cap Giveaway Day, with each fan receiving a handsome cap with the new Tampa Bay Downs logo with paid admission. Jockeys will be available to sign caps and other items on the first floor of the Grandstand throughout the afternoon.

“Live It Up Challenge.” Registration has begun for the second annual, free online “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, with players vying for the grand prize of a seat at the 2016 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship and $1,000 in cash.

Also at stake are additional prizes of $1,000 for second place, $500 for third and $500 for most winners selected throughout the contest, which runs from Saturday, Jan. 31 – which is Festival Preview Day at Tampa Bay Downs – through Saturday, April 4, which is Florida Cup Day.

Players can register online and get the complete set of rules at on the Internet. All wagers are mythical. Players must make a selection every day; those skipping a day incur a strike, with three strikes ending their participation. Players also incur a strike when their selection in one of that day’s “Challenge Races” does not finish first, second or third.

All players begin the competition with two life lines. A new feature will give players the opportunity to purchase two additional life lines before the contest and extra life lines at two specified times during the competition. The deadline to register is 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, the first day of the contest.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.