Before arriving at Tampa Bay Downs for the 2013-14 Thoroughbred meeting, jockey Fernando De La Cruz returned to his homeland of Peru with his wife Rosa and their children for two weeks to visit family and friends.
It had been three years since De La Cruz returned home, back when his son Brian was only 8 months old. On this trip, he and Rosa were proud to show off their 9-month-old daughter, Norma, to De La Cruz’s parents and siblings. “My mom and dad were very happy to see their granddaughter for the first time,” De La Cruz said.
The hiatus – following back-to-back, runner-up performances at both the Tampa Bay Downs and Indiana Downs meetings – also enabled De La Cruz to recharge his batteries in preparation for the current meeting. Considering his fast start, the De La Cruz family reunion might become an annual event.
De La Cruz rode three winners on today’s card for the third consecutive program. He captured the second race on 5-year-old horse Majestic Man for trainer Jason DaCosta; the seventh on the turf on 4-year-old filly Slander for trainer Forrest Kaelin; and the eighth on 4-year-old filly Sugadadeze for trainer Jamie Ness.
After riding his 1,000th winner on 5-year-old mare Jungle Princess in the fifth race on Dec. 4 for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and Ness, De La Cruz kept his foot on the pedal, riding 11 winners in four days to earn the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month Award.
Included in his haul was a victory in the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes on Dec. 7 on 2-year-old Florida-bred filly My Sweet Dove for breeder-owner Peter Lawson and trainer Monte R. Thomas.
De La Cruz has assumed the favorite’s role to win his first Tampa Bay Downs jockey title. He says he is comfortable going from the role of chaser (he trailed eventual track champion Daniel Centeno much of the 2012-13 meeting) to “chasee.”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m chasing someone or being chased,” said the 27-year-old De La Cruz. “It really isn’t more pressure. No matter how many races I win or how much money I make, I know I have to keep working hard, doing the same things and being nice to people.
“You always have to remember where you came from.”
Trainers are clamoring for De La Cruz’s services. He already has ridden winners for Ness, Thomas, Kaelin, DaCosta and Tom Proctor, all among the track’s top conditioners. But the ambitious De La Cruz is equally willing to represent lesser-known stables.
“Every trainer wants to use him because he tries so hard,” said his agent, Don Cespedes. “There might be a guy with one horse who wants Fernando to gallop his horse in the morning, and he does it the same way he does for everybody.
“He just wants to keep going. I have to force him to take a break.”
The next targeted milestone for De La Cruz – whose brothers Walter, also at Tampa Bay Downs, and south Florida-based Juan, are jockeys – is winning 200 races in the calendar year. With 10 racing days left in 2013, he has 190 (18th-best in North America).
“Winning 200 races this year is a big goal for me, because I’ve never done that,” De La Cruz said. “But if I don’t make it, I’m just going to keep working the same way and look forward to making it next year.”
At his current rate, it might not be long before he gets a chance to make an impact on a bigger stage. “Whether that opportunity comes sooner or later, I just have to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I work hard for everybody, and I appreciate all the trainers who support me and my agent for being here every morning.”
Trainer Dale Bennett saddled two winners on Wednesday’s card, giving him four for the meeting. Bennett won the third race with 5-year-old mare Questmet, ridden by Luis Garcia, and the fifth with 3-year-old colt Creative Art, piloted by Antonio Gallardo.
Luis Garcia rode two winners, adding a victory in the ninth race on the turf aboard 3-year-old gelding Mutaka for trainer Arnaud Delacour.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Donnally to conduct book-signing Saturday. Former jockey-turned Eclipse Award-winning journalist Dr. Eddie Donnally, who rode at Tampa Bay Downs in the 1970s and served for a short time as the track’s publicity director, will appear at the Oldsmar oval from noon-4 p.m. on Saturday to sign his book “Ride The White Horse: A Checkered Jockey’s Story of Racing, Rage & Redemption.”
The 70-year-old Donnally, an ordained minister who lives in Clearwater with his wife Sandi, served as the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s Director of Development for eight years and is currently a staff chaplain for Suncoast Hospice and Mease Dunedin Hospital. He is also active as a trauma counselor, providing spiritual care to disaster survivors.
But it is what happened before, during and immediately after his riding career that provide the dramatic backdrop to his life story. The book details Donnally’s struggles with bulimia, injuries, substance abuse and an arrest for sports bribery, as well as his inspirational story of hope and redemption. “It’s not pretty because it wasn’t pretty, but it’s not ugly because it wasn’t all ugly,” Donnally says. “If I was going to write it, I was going to write it the way it was. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it.
“The book is the story of somebody who, by the grace of God, changed their life around. I tell people the world broke my heart and broke my mind, I think. And God broke my hardened heart. Now I want to reach the broken,” Donnally said.
Clydesdales to appear here. The world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales will appear at Tampa Bay Downs during the Sunday, Dec. 29 program. The Clydesdale team consists of eight horses pulling a wagon, although groups of 10 travel together as a team to provide alternates. A Dalmatian (also known as a coach dog) has accompanied each team since the 1950s; they originally were employed to protect the beer as a driver made his deliveries.
Anheuser-Busch owns about 250 Clydesdales, which are kept at various locations. They were first introduced to the public in 1933 to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. A fully mature Clydesdale stands at least 18 hands (roughly six feet) and weighs between 1,800-2,300 pounds.