OLDSMAR, FL. – Five years ago, jockey Fernando Jara thought winning major races might be as easy as riding a bicycle.
The native of Panama won the 2006 Belmont Stakes on Jazil and the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2007 Dubai World Cup on Invasor – all while still a teenager. Invasor’s two huge victories alone were worth $11-million in purse money.
Set to turn 25 on Tuesday, Jara – who rode in four races at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, winning the second on Jacks or Better Farm’s 4-year-old colt Alley Oop Oop – admits he might have enjoyed too much success too soon.
Now, he is seeking to return to the peaks he reached at 18 and 19 the old-fashioned way: by earning it, one day at a time.
“I want to prove to people I’m going to do it again,” said Jara, who lives in Miami with his wife Jennifer, their 3-year-old son Ian and 1-year-old daughter Gabriella.
“When I was a little kid, I used to dream all the time of being a jockey and winning those kind of races, but I told myself ‘Maybe when I’m 30 or 40, I might have a chance to ride in one of those races.’
“For all that to happen so quick, it was like it wasn’t real. I think it affected me a little, because sometimes you get kind of big. You make a lot of money and get a lot of attention, and you start thinking ‘I don’t need them; I’m the man.’ But it’s not like that.
“I stopped working hard in the mornings; sometimes my agent would get me horses to work and I’d call and say I was sick.”
A wake-up call came for Jara when Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Jazil and Invasor, took him off his horses. Then, bad luck struck when Jara suffered a broken collarbone at Hollywood Park in November of 2007.
Jara spent the following year riding back home in Panama. In the winter of 2009, McLaughlin helped him get a job riding in Dubai, site of his World Cup victory.
Upon returning stateside after five months, Jara bounced around between Delaware, New York and Chicago before settling the past two years in Miami, where he has established a solid relationship with Stanley Gold, the trainer for Jacks or Better Farm.
Jara has ridden the stable’s 3-year-old filly Awesome Belle to four consecutive stakes wins this year and won the Grade III Carry Back Stakes in July at Calder on the Gold-trained Fort Loudon, beating eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg by a neck.
“I like him personally and as a rider,” said Gold, who believes Jara is capable of competing at the top level of the game on a regular basis.
“His potential is unlimited. He has a good set of hands and an excellent sense of the pace of a race, he’s an analytical rider and he knows where he is on the track at all times. Plus, he is an all-around nice guy,” Gold said. “I really can’t find a flaw with him, and I don’t want to.”
Jara – who rode his first race in Panama when he was 14 and his first winner at 15 – believes he was born to be a jockey.
His father, Jorge Jara, was a trainer, and his grandfather Hugo Jara was a jockey and a trainer. Fernando’s sister Alexandra, 22, is enrolled in the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Jockey School in Panama, where he was discovered.
“Racing, it is in our family’s blood,” said Jara, who served his apprenticeship in New York while learning from greats such as Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez.
Jara regrets blowing off business when he was younger, but wants to focus on moving ahead with his career. Will another opportunity arise with a horse like Jazil or Invasor? Only time will tell.
“I know I was wrong, and I lost a lot of business,” said Jara, who has ridden the past two years at Calder in Miami and is currently based at Gulfstream. “I thought everybody needed me, and that is not the way this business is.
“It is about what you do every day, not what you did in the past. It doesn’t matter if you won five Breeders’ Cups; it’s day-by-day, every day, and you have to keep working hard.”
Alley Oop Oop’s victory on the turf came in the Lambholm South Race of the Week, a $32,000 allowance/optional claiming event at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. It was the fourth victory for the Jacks or Better Homebred, who was third in the Nov. 10 Bonnie Heath Turf Cup and fifth in the Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap, both at Calder under Jara.
Angel Serpa moved to the top of the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings Saturday by riding three winners, giving him eight for the meet. Serpa won the fifth race on 2-year-old filly Tsunami Wave for the Tsunami Wave Partnership and trainer Jane Cibelli.
Serpa won back-to-back in the eighth and ninth races: first on 3-year-old filly Normative Appeal for owner AJ Suited Racing Stable and trainer James J. Toner, then on 6-year-old gelding Awesome Mich for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness.
Ness sent out two winners, also saddling 4-year-old gelding Chelsea Brook to win the seventh. Chelsea Brook was ridden by Daniel Centeno, who also scored on 2-year-old gelding Holiday Star in the fourth for Augustin Stable and trainer H. Graham Motion.
Racing resumes Wednesday with a first-race post time of 12:38 p.m.