It was a cat-and-mouse game that might have lasted for five seconds, from the time the two pace-setters crossed the finish line for the first time until they entered the clubhouse turn.
Daniel Centeno and Jose Lezcano, the jockeys on Tampa Bay Derby first and third-place finishers Ring Weekend and Surfing U S A, exchanged glances while weighing each other’s intentions. Before the Grade II, $350,000 race, trainer H. Graham Motion had told Centeno to break sharply from the No. 1 post, then secure good position behind the early speed horses and monitor the race developments from there.
But when it was clear no one else was going to the lead, Centeno faced a pivotal decision.
“Lezcano and I were looking at each other like, ‘Who is going to go?’ ” Centeno said today, less than 24 hours after his second victory in Tampa Bay Downs’ biggest race (he won the 2009 edition on Musket Man).
“I tried to let (Surfing U S A) go, but he took a hold too. I said OK, if you don’t want to go, I’m going to let my horse go. So I made my decision and he (Ring Weekend) relaxed perfectly.”
What happened next was a shock to almost everyone, even the ecstatic members of the St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds ownership groups. Their 14-1 long shot sped through a quarter-mile in 23.62 seconds, the half in 46.68 and six furlongs in 1:11.41, widening his margin from the Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Surfing U S A and Vinceremos to eight lengths approaching the 3/8-mile pole.
That was the point where the 42-year-old Centeno – a five-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion – started to worry. Was it too fast, too soon? But, as he told Peter Mallett of the Tampa Bay Downs publicity staff immediately after the race, Ring Weekend had really made the choices to that point.
“When I got to the first turn, it was like (Ring Weekend) got mad at me for not letting him run,” Centeno told Mallett. “He wasn’t rank, he was just full of himself and I had to give him his head.”
By the time the others kicked into gear, the gelded son of Tapit-Free the Magic was long gone. Motion said he wasn’t overly worried about the six-furlong split – “racehorse time,” he said – and at the wire Ring Weekend had a three-length margin on Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Vinceremos, with Surfing U S A third and Conquest Titan fourth. The final time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth was 1:43.71.
Centeno said this Tampa Bay Derby probably was more meaningful to him personally, especially in light of his late arrival this season at Tampa Bay Downs and the fact he didn’t have a mount for the race until Motion and West Point Thoroughbreds boss Terry Finley decided Monday to come to Oldsmar.
“I was a little more nervous (in 2009),” he said. “The more you ride against these kind of guys, the more it becomes like another race. And riding for people like (Motion) means a lot.”
Ring Weekend had only broken his maiden four weeks earlier at Gulfstream, and Centeno had never been on his back until getting a leg up in the paddock. But he made an immediate connection with the $310,000 Keeneland September 2012 Yearling purchase, and it continued through the race.
“I just warmed him up regular. I was talking to him, grabbing his ears and his neck, and he was so cool and quiet and relaxed,” Centeno said. “On the backside, when I looked back and saw I was in front by so many lengths, I started talking to him more, from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole, to get him to relax more.”
Although Ring Weekend ran somewhat greenly in the stretch – Centeno said he didn’t switch leads until after the wire – he showed little signs of his exertions afterward. “He was galloping out after the race all the way to the backside, and when he came back he wasn’t even blowing hard. The way he ran, in his first time on this track, he looks like a very nice horse,” Centeno said.
Ring Weekend picked up 50 points toward qualifying for the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, tied for third place behind Samraat (60) and Intense Holiday (53).
It was an afternoon to cherish for Motion – the trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom – who also won the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf with 5-year-old mare Cloud Scapes and was third in the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the grass with Interrupted.
While Motion decides on Ring Weekend’s next start leading to Churchill Downs, Centeno and his agent, Mike Moran, will play a waiting game. Five years ago, after his Tampa Bay Derby triumph on Musket Man, Centeno was replaced by Venezuelan countryman Eibar Coa for the horse’s Grade II Illinois Derby victory and third-place Kentucky Derby and Preakness finishes (Centeno rode Musket Man when he won the $75,000 Super Stakes in 2010 at Tampa Bay Downs as a 4-year-old).
“That is the owner and Graham Motion’s decision, but I’m glad they gave me the opportunity to ride him in the Derby,” Centeno said. “It worked out well – not the way it was supposed to, but we won the race. If they let me ride him back, that will be great, and if they don’t I’ll be thankful for riding him Saturday.”
Centeno’s victory was one of two on the Festival Day 34 card for local riders. Erick Rodriguez won the Hillsborough on Cloud Scapes, while Lezcano won the Florida Oaks on Testa Rossi.
Ness expands roster. Jamie Ness is a humble, down-to-earth guy who takes as much pleasure pushing daughter Hannah in her stroller as he does watching his horses win races.
The 39-year-old trainer is not one to brag on his success, but the statistics speak loud and clear: Ness is on a path toward a remarkable eighth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title.
With 32 victories, Ness has an 11-win margin from Gerald Bennett (the two tied for the 2010-11 track crown with 61 victories apiece). While there is still time for Bennett, or third-place trainer Kathleen O’Connell, to create some suspense, the smart money is on Ness to add another brick to his Oldsmar dynasty.
Although it no surprise to see Ness leading the pack, there is one big difference in his operation from the past five seasons: Ness is training for clients other than Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the three-time Eclipse Award runner-up owner operated by Chicago-area residents Rich and Karen Papiese.
On Friday, Ness saddled Slander, a 5-year-old mare owned by Mark Hoffman, for a victory in a $20,000 claiming race (Slander was claimed out of that race by owner-trainer M. Anthony Ferraro). The opportunity to train a handful of other horses arose from Rich Papiese’s decision to scale back his far-flung operation, which employs five trainers and produced an all-time record 542 victories in 2012.
“Mark and I have been friends for a long time and have partnered on some horses in the past,” said Ness, who said he and Papiese reached an agreement to allow him to train outside horses. “I’m taking on a few other select horses for people I’ve known for a long time, but it’s low-key. Midwest is still my No. 1 client, and they get preference in everything. Rich Papiese and I are as close as we’ve ever been.”
Ness – who led North American trainers in wins in 2012, with 395 – is also working with Arindel Farm, whose Ocala operation is managed by another friend, Jolane Weeks. On Feb. 2, Arindel Farm’s 3-year-old homebred filly Melora won a 1-mile maiden special weight race on the Tampa Bay Downs turf while listed as being trained by Mandy Ness, Jamie’s wife.
In a more recent start at Gulfstream, Melora finished off the board with Jamie listed as trainer. Jamie and Mandy, a former jockey, work as a team.
“(Papiese) is trying to go in a little different direction, and that allows me to loosen up a little,” said Ness, who saddled a track-record 79 winners at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2011-12 meeting while winning at a 47-percent rate.
“I’ll probably pick up a few more owners when we go up north and branch out to more tracks. Maryland will be our home base, and we’ll take advantage of the condition books at six or seven tracks that are relatively close together.”
As detailed in a recent article in the Daily Racing Form, Papiese is seeking to raise the overall quality of Midwest Thoroughbreds while decreasing his numbers. Midwest sent out 1,479 starters in 2013 – 378 fewer than in 2012. Midwest also purchased about 50 sales horses last year in the $50,000 range.
Ness has also excelled this winter at Gulfstream, sending out eight winners from 27 starters. He is 7-for-50 at Laurel, where weather has put a crimp into the day-to-day planning of all horsemen.
So while it is not exactly business as usual, the Jamie Ness juggernaut shows no signs of slippage. “The training title isn’t something I point for at the start of the meeting,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll finish up the last couple of months strong, but we’ll keep doing what’s best for each horse and take things in stride.”
There is more suspense in the race for leading jockey as the meeting rounds the turn for home. Ronnie Allen, Jr., is positioned to win his fifth Tampa Bay Downs title, but he hasn’t been able to shake Antonio Gallardo.
The Spaniard trimmed Allen’s margin to 73-68 today with two victories. Gallardo won the second race on 3-year-old gelding Substraight for owner Equels Marro Racing, LLC and trainer Carl Larsen and the third race on 3-year-old filly To the Flag for co-owner Betty Hamilton and fellow owner-trainer Kathleen O’Connell.
Gary Boulanger also rode two winners. He was on first-time starter Irish Orchid, a 4-year-old filly and first-time starter, in the fourth race for breeder-owner Irish Eyes Stable and trainer Dennis Griffith. Boulanger added the eighth on the turf on 4-year-old filly Catbird Seat for owner G. Watts Humphrey, Jr., and trainer Victoria Oliver, his daughter.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track 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.