Fernando De La Cruz knows the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies a track riding title. Last summer and fall at Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind., the 26-year-old native of Peru won 68 races to claim his first North American title.
Since Feb. 4, when his wife Rosa gave birth to their daughter Norma (the De La Cruzes also have a 2 ½-year-old son, Brian), De La Cruz has mounted a determined challenge to veteran Daniel Centeno’s quest to win a record fifth Tampa Bay Downs jockeys’ crown.
De La Cruz rode four winners on Sunday’s card to narrow Centeno’s lead to 81-75. In fairness to both jockeys, though, the race probably was settled a couple of weeks back; De La Cruz leaves Monday for Indiana Downs in Shelbyville, which kicks off its spring-summer season Tuesday.
De La Cruz has finished second in victories at Indiana Downs the past two seasons. As much as he enjoys competing at Tampa Bay Downs, he can’t afford to give his competition at Indiana Downs a head-start while pursuing what would be an improbable task, at best, with seven performances left in the local meet.
“I would like to stay here until the end of the meet, but I have to take care of my business,” said De La Cruz, who will join his brother Walter, also a jockey. “I just want to thank everyone who has supported me at this meet, my agent (Don Cespedes) and all the owners and trainers – I’m very happy with how everything has gone.”
De La Cruz has ridden 63 winners since Jan. 1, which is tied for 20th in North America in 2013 (and one more than Centeno). His best work has come since Norma’s birth, an event he said inspired him to excel. De La Cruz was also successful this season on the stakes front, winning the $75,000 Super Stakes on 6-year-old gelding Good Lord on Feb. 23 for trainer Forrest Kaelin in track-record time of 1:22.03 for seven furlongs.
In an extreme rarity for any jockey, De La Criz rode all 10 races Sunday. He kicked off the afternoon by winning the first race, a mile-and-40-yard claiming event, on 5-year-old gelding Clever King for owner Steve Organ and trainer John Simms.
He was back to the winner’s circle after the fifth race on 5-year-old horse Jo Ann’s Bullet for owner Robert E. Van Worp and trainer Brenda McCarthy, and again after the seventh race on Author Bob, helping the 4-year-old gelding break his maiden in his 11th career start for owner Dahl Farms and trainer Gerald Bennett.
De La Cruz capped off his second four-victory day of the meet in memorable style, guiding 14-1 shot Traci Lea, a 7-year-old mare who entered the race 1-for-31 lifetime, to a seven-furlong claiming triumph for owner-trainer Kim Chapman.
When a jockey wins twice on horses that are a combined 1-for-41, you know he is doing something right. And De La Cruz almost won five, finishing a hard-charging second in the 10th and final race on Bend a Silver to even-money favorite Rolling Rate.
De La Cruz has 884 victories since beginning his career in 2007.
Trainer Kathleen O’Connell and jockey Antonio Gallardo teamed up for two victories Sunday. In the sixth race, a 1-mile turf claiming contest, Gallardo piloted 3-year-old gelding How About Peace to a neck victory from the O’Connell-trained Act of Madness. It was the second consecutive victory for Gallardo aboard How About Peace, who is owned by O’Connell in partnership with Lynne Boutte.
In the eighth race, another 1-mile turf claiming event, Gallardo brought 4-year-old filly Lady Samuri from far back for a neck victory from Darlin’ Diane. For the record, Lady Samuri was claimed from the O’Connell barn for $10,000 by trainer Yvon Belsoeur for new owner Bruno Schickedanz.
Trainer Gerald Bennett saddled two winners Sunday. In addition to saddling the above-mentioned Author Bob, Bennett sent out 6-year-old mare Two Wonders in the fourth race off a five-month layoff to win for the fourth time in her last five starts for owner Lorna Possler. Augusto A. Marin rode the winner in the 1-mile allowance/$32,000 optional claiming race.
The top two finishers in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9, Verrazano and Java’s War, are among the top four points-earners for the $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
The Louisville, Ky., track instituted a new system this year to determine the 20 3-year-old starters for the 139th Run for the Roses, replacing the old graded-stakes earnings model. Saturday’s Grade III Derby Trial is the lone remaining race offering points for potential Derby starters.
Unbeaten (4-for-4) Verrazano, who earned 50 points for his Tampa Bay Derby triumph, is tied for first in the standings with Grade I Florida Derby winner Orb with 150 points apiece. Grade I Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents is third with 129 points, followed by Java’s War in fourth with 122.
The third-place finisher in the Tampa Bay Derby, Falling Sky, previously won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and is 19th with 30 points, assuring him a spot in the field should his connections choose to enter him.
Two Tampa Bay Derby participants have won the Kentucky Derby since 2007. That year, the Carl Nafzger-trained Street Sense used his victory in the Oldsmar showcase as a springboard to wearing the roses. Three years later, trainer Todd Pletcher was rewarded with his only Kentucky Derby triumph by Super Saver, who finished third in the 2010 Tampa Bay Derby.
Street Sense and Super Saver were ridden by Calvin Borel in their Kentucky Derby triumphs.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 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.