Jockey Fernando De La Cruz found the perfect way to celebrate the return of Thoroughbred racing to Tampa Bay Downs on a picture-perfect afternoon.
The 27-year-old native of Peru rode two winners for trainer Jamie Ness, including his 1,000th career victory in the fifth race aboard 5-year-old mare Jungle Princess. De La Cruz, who finished second in the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs standings with 75 victories, is in the top 20 of all jockeys in North America in 2013 with 182 victories.
A festive, sun-splashed crowd joined De La Cruz and his family and friends in marking the resumption of the 2013-14 meeting, which began July 1 and continues Friday with a nine-race card.
“Getting my 1,000th win at Tampa Bay Downs is something I will remember all my life,” said De La Cruz. “Jamie gave me the right instructions and the horse kept going and kept going. He is a good trainer and I appreciate the chance to ride for him.
“I feel really happy, but I don’t want to stop here. I want to keep going.”
Proving his point, De La Cruz returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh race on 4-year-old gelding Young Dude, again for Ness and owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.
Younger brother Walter De La Cruz won the sixth race on the turf on 5-year-old gelding Crimson Knight, the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, giving the De La Cruz siblings three consecutive victories. Crimson Knight is owned by Ray Rech and trained by Gerald Bennett.
Following his milestone triumph, De La Cruz was joined in the winner’s circle by his wife, Rosa; their 3-year-old son, Brian; and baby daughter, Norma. Also present were Ness and his family, wife Mandy and 1-year-old daughter Hannah Annmarie. Jungle Princess paid $9.40 as the second betting choice in the field of 12.
“Fernando is a good, up-and-coming rider who works hard and is just an all-American kid, and I’m really happy for him,” Ness said. “He comes with a good attitude all the time. When you see him in the mornings, he is always upbeat, and even when he loses a race he has a positive attitude.
“He did just what I told him – lay off the early speed and run down the leader (runner-up Off the Street) down the lane. If I didn’t have him in this race, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” added Ness, who recorded his 2,000th career victory as a trainer on Thanksgiving Day at Laurel.
In the featured eighth race at a mile on the turf, 3-year-old gelding Mellow Fellow rallied along the rail to post a nose victory from Silver Cloud. Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode the winner, who paid $31, for owner Ripplewood Farm and trainer Tim Richardson.
First-time starter Palace Barista won the ninth race under jockey Harry Vega, paying $125.40. The 3-year-old colt, a first-time starter, is owned and trained by his breeder, Lynne Scace.
Friday’s nine-race card begins with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. and includes three races on the turf. Four trainers who have Breeders’ Cup victories to their credit – William “Buff” Bradley, H. Graham Motion, Tom Proctor and Jonathan Sheppard – are represented in the eighth race, a $25,000 allowance for fillies and mares at a mile on the turf.
Saturday is Lambholm South Cotillion Festival Day, with an entire card devoted to 2-year-old racing. Featured are the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes for colts and geldings and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, both at six furlongs.
Saturday’s festivities begin at 8 a.m. with the return of the always-popular “All-You-Can-Eat” Breakfast Buffet in the Backyard Picnic Area, adjacent to the paddock. The cost is $6.95, which entitles attendees to a Tampa Bay Downs-style breakfast; grandstand admission; a Tampa Bay Downs program; and a copy of author-handicapper Peter Mallett’s book “Betting Tampa Bay Downs 2013-2014: An Up-To-Date Guide For Bettors Handicapping The Oldsmar Oval.”
Fans will also have the opportunity to watch morning workouts and meet trainers and jockeys. Mallett will provide a handicapping seminar from 10-11 a.m. Tickets may be purchased at the track’s Switchboard Desk in the General Office, at Customer Service on the first floor of the grandstand or the day of the event. For more details, call (813) 855-4401.
Tampa Bay Downs 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.