Fernando De La Cruz is fourth in the jockey standings at Tampa Bay Downs, with 22 victories. He won the Hoosier Park riding title in 2012 with 68 victories and won a pair of $200,000 stakes on the same day at Indiana Downs in July.
The 26-year-old native of Huancavelica, Peru has won between 129-170 races the past four years, firmly establishing himself as a reliable, quality reinsman with loads of upside. To top it off, he is the current Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.
But none of his accomplishments or visions of future success could prepare him for Monday. Instead of riding at Tampa Bay Downs, which was dark, De La Cruz was at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa while wife Rosa gave birth to the couple’s second child, Norma.
Weighing in at just under 6 pounds, happy and healthy Norma and her mom returned home Wednesday while Fernando returned to work, riding five horses. “I’m going to keep doing the same things, only work even harder,” said De La Cruz. “It was the best thing in my life to see my daughter born.”
De La Cruz was unable to be at the hospital in 2010 when Rosa gave birth to their son, Brian. Actually, she insisted he go to work, and he booted home two winners on the Hoosier Park card.
Before riding Wednesday’s card, De La Cruz wore the look of a man who witnessed the miracle of a new life he helped to create. “It is more exciting than winning a race,” said a beaming De La Cruz, who has 831 career victories and more than $14-million in earnings. “There really is no comparison.”
De La Cruz’s brother Walter – who rode only in the eighth race Wednesday – took the mother and newborn home from the hospital. Walter, 23, is attempting to follow in Fernando’s footsteps, but he hasn’t made much headway locally. He has six victories from 58 mounts at Tampa Bay Downs.
But the younger De La Cruz is far from a novice. He won the spring-summer, summer and fall meets at Thistledown in Ohio, compiling 129 victories from 490 mounts for a 26-percent strike rate in his first year of North American racing.
Here at Tampa Bay Downs, Walter still is learning the language and not getting many mounts, and both his brother and agent, Angel Landrau, are trying to keep him from getting discouraged.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in Walter. He’s patient, and he follows whatever instructions the trainers give him. It is just a matter of opportunity,” Landrau said. “In Cleveland, from Day 1, he won right away. You get a break and you get on live horses; that’s what this business is all about.
“It’s hard to break in at Tampa. He is a relative unknown here, and most of the trainers use riders they know,” Landrau said.
The De La Cruz brothers (Fernando is 4-feet-11, Walter 4-10 ½) both attended the Jorge Bernardini Yori Jockey School in Peru, and started riding at the Hipodromo de Monterrico track in Lima.
When he was 19, Fernando was injured in a spill, fracturing vertebrae in his neck that caused him to miss about 10 months. He had already been thinking about coming to the United States, and trainer Barbara McBride helped him become established in Indiana in 2007. He won 116 races his first year and has made steady progress.
Both De La Cruzes remain close to their family, sending a portion of their winnings to their parents in Peru. Fernando is rapidly gaining a following among top horsemen.
“He works at his job, and that’s what it takes,” said trainer Forrest Kaelin, himself a former jockey. “He’s a hard worker who is always smiling around the barn, and he is finishing races better and has learned to rate better.”
Fernando’s agent, Don Cespedes, considers it a pleasure and privilege to work for him. “I’ve been an agent for 34 years and had a lot of leading riders everywhere, and I’ve never met anyone as polite and hard-working as he is,” Cespedes said. “If you tell him to be at someone’s barn at 6 a.m. to work a horse, he’s there 10 minutes before 6. He is a gentleman who looks out for everybody, and he has improved so much since he’s come to the United States, it’s unbelievable.”
Both De La Cruz brothers admire such fellow Peruvian jockeys as Hall of Famer Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano, but Walter doesn’t have to look that far for a role model.
“I want to ride hard and strong, like (Fernando) does. I try to be dedicated to working hard in the morning,” Walter said.
“He actually got a riding title before I did, at his first track, so in my opinion he is right behind me,” said Fernando. “We are together a lot of the time. In a way, he is almost like my kid. But when I’m in a race against him, I don’t look at him like my family or my brother. I have to do the best I can for the trainer I’m riding for and try to win that race.”
Garcia Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month. Carlos Garcia, who is currently riding a four-race winning streak, has been honored as the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month. He will be recognized between races during Saturday’s Tampa Bay Downs card.
The native of Buenos Aires, Argentina has won with eight of 20 starters at the meet. His recent roll began with a victory Jan. 23 by 8-year-old Florida-bred Hold On Smokey in a five-furlong starter allowance race in 54.99 seconds, .07 seconds off the turf track record.
Garcia saddled back-to-back winners Jan. 27, notching victories with 5-year-old gelding Fleeter and 4-year-old maiden Shadow Shogun. His fourth consecutive victory came Jan. 31 in an allowance route on the turf with 5-year-old gelding Saintly Love, a half-brother to Garcia’s stable star, 6-year-old Action Andy, both owned by Robert Gerczak.
Action Andy – whose seven stakes victories include back-to-back editions of the Pelican Stakes and the 2012 Super Stakes – may return for the 2013 Super Stakes on Feb. 23. “I worked him the other day, but it was a slow work,” Garcia said of Action Andy, whose last start resulted in a third-place finish at Gulfstream on Dec. 29 in the Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes. “I’ll see if I can ramp him up a little more.”
Since becoming a trainer in 1971, Garcia has saddled more than 1,300 winners with total earnings above $25-million. Prominent on the Maryland circuit, he has trained more than 140 stakes winners, including top Maryland-bred distaffer Squan Song. He also helped to develop Breeders’ Cup champions Safely Kept and Countess Diana.
Garcia, who worked as a groom in the late 1960s for Laz Barrera (who trained Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner), says experience is the key to his current success. Of his 10 horses at Tampa Bay Downs, seven have one at least one race.
“I selected this group of horses to come here, have a good time and win some races,” he said. “The track surface is good for my horses, and I enjoy being here – the competition, the people, the whole atmosphere.”
And perspicacious bettors are enjoying it whenever they see one of Garcia’s horses entered.
Team Valor International’s 5-year-old Animal Kingdom heads a list of 41 horses nominated to the 27th running of the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on Feb. 16 at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.
Animal Kingdom, trained by H. Graham Motion, won the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and was second in his most recent start, the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita, to 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan. The nominations list also includes the top three finishers in last year’s Tampa Bay Stakes: Dennis J. Manning’s Roman Tiger, Kinsman Stable’s El Commodore and Swift Warrior, owned by James Covello and James Dolan.
Live racing resumes Thursday at Tampa Bay Downs, with a nine-race card beginning at about 12:30 p.m. The track currently races five days a week – Wednesday through Sunday – and 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.