OLDSMAR, FL. – During the first month of the 2012-13 meet, Daniel Centeno rode winners for such top trainers as Nick Zito, H. Graham Motion, Thomas Proctor, Jamie Ness, Gerald Bennett, Derek Ryan and Antonio Sano.
More than any jockey at Tampa Bay Downs, Centeno enters the starting gate believing he is on the best horse. But his preparation never wavers – a key factor in his ongoing success.
With a meet-best 20 victories through Wednesday, including eight since Dec. 26, Centeno is an obvious choice as the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.
Just don’t expect him to rest on his laurels.
“When the gates open you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you have to be ready for anything,” said the 41-year-old Tampa resident, a native of Venezuela. “That’s why I don’t pay attention to whether I’m on the favorite or what the odds are.
“I read the (Daily Racing) Form to see if it looks like I’ve got the best horse in the race and try to make my plan. The trainers give you instructions, but I need to make a backup plan in case something happens I’m not expecting,” said Centeno, who has ridden more than 2,500 winners between his years in Venezuela and stateside.
Centeno already has served notice of his intention to claim an unprecedented fifth Oldsmar title – not in so many words, but through his accomplishments on-track. He has sprinted clear of Angel Serpa by five wins at press time. Centeno holds the single-season Tampa Bay Downs mark with 144 winners, set during the 2007-08 campaign.
“I try to ride my horses the best I can, win the most races I can and if we win the title, we win the title,” Centeno said. “Right now, we don’t really think about it.”
Indeed, Centeno offers proof positive how quickly things can change at the racetrack. Two years ago, he dislocated his pelvis and separated his left shoulder in a midseason spill, derailing his hopes of a fifth straight Tampa Bay Downs title. His determination to bounce back strong has again made him the jockey to beat.
“To me, the main thing is staying healthy and working every day to keep my body fit,” said Centeno, who plays softball and volleyball in addition to working horses in the morning and riding races. “I really don’t think age matters. My body takes a little longer to get fit, but I feel like I’m getting better and stronger every year.”
Nobody wins them all, and Centeno found himself on the wrong end of a photo finish in the sixth race.
The holiday season is over; those bright lights illuminating the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle came from the megawatt smiles of Haley and Patrick Schmid, whose father, Patrick T. Schmid, won the sixth race aboard 5-year-old gelding In Daniel’s Boots for his wife, owner Allison Schmid. The winner, trained by Stephen Proctor, Sr., paid $18.60.
“I thought I was going to lose my voice,” said 11-year-old Haley. “You want my autograph?” said 10-year-old Patrick, beaming.
Their exuberance was understandable. Their father last won a race as a jockey in the late 1980s at Delta Downs in Louisiana. After starting his career again last fall at Mountaineer in West Virginia, Schmid was 0-for-35 before In Daniel’s Boots prevailed by a neck in the six-furlong event from even-money favorite Optionality and Centeno.
The Schmids live in Ocala with Allison’s mother, Nancy Brown. Schmid rode Quarter Horses and mixed meets at bush tracks throughout the Southwest and West before retiring, the first time.
“I think it’s an accomplishment for somebody not to ride races for 25 years and come back and get as fit as I did to be able to do it,” Schmid said. “My first race back (at Mountaineer), I nearly fell off the horse, I was so tired. That’s the difference how fit these riders are. You can lope 25 or 30 a morning, and it ain’t like riding a race.
“I ain’t as fit as most of them in here, but if I rode three or four a day, I would be,” said Schmid, who drinks organic juices and eats healthy to maintain a competitive edge.
“He’s kind of making a second go at it, having fun for himself,” Allison Schmid said. “Instead of getting a sports car, he’s going back to riding races. It's a milestone for him. It's nice to have it all come together and for him to reap the rewards, for once."
At another point of the spectrum, jockey Jose L. Espinoza made his first-ever start at Tampa Bay Downs a winning one when he piloted 4-year-old filly Seductress to victory in the seventh race, a mile maiden claiming event on the turf.
It was career start No. 10,000 for Espinoza, whose numerous stakes winners include the likes of Evening Attire and Interpatation.
Seductress posted a half-length victory from Crimson Spire for owner Newtown Anner Stud and trainer John P. Terranova, II. The winner was claimed for $25,000 by trainer Carlos Garcia for owner Robert Gerczak.
In the eighth race, an allowance optional claiming event at seven furlongs for older horses, 4-year-old gelding Angelofdistinction staged a furious rally under jockey Angel Serpa to win by a head from Mexico-bred Tolomeo.
Angelofdistinction is owned by Sargas Management LLC and trained by Jorge Navarro. It was his third victory since capturing the 2011 Inaugural at the start of last year’s Tampa Bay Downs meet.
In the fourth race, a six-furlong maiden claiming event, Huber Villa-Gomez scored aboard 5-year-old gelding Vanguard Knight for owner Leopoldo Ortega and trainer Manuel Criollo.
Vanguard Knight paid $152.40 to win, the largest win payoff of the meeting. It was one of two victories on the card for Villa-Gomez.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. There will be a High 5 carryover of $11,238.12.
The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.