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As Ronnie Allen, Jr., watched the replay of the seventh race in the jockeys’ room today, an observer realized it is never as easy as it looks from the outside – even for a jockey who rode four winners for the fourth time at the current meeting.
“I thought I could win if I got through,’” Allen said of his victory aboard trainer Tom Proctor’s 4-year-old filly Solitary Life in the seventh race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth maiden special weight on the turf. “But the leaders were stopping in front of me and the outside horses were coming on, so I was getting worried.
“I knew Vernon Bush (on pace-setter Two Turn Panther, along the rail), wasn’t going to let me go through, so I started looking outside for some place to go. Then, when the 9 horse (Kiss the Storm, Luis Garcia aboard) moved, I followed them and was hoping I could catch them.
“I knew I had enough horse left – it was just a matter of her being good enough, and she was. It worked out good,” he added, breaking out into the familiar Allen grin after the three-quarter length victory by the Niall Racing-owned filly.
Allen’s four winners came from five mounts, with a third-place finish in his other effort. Earlier on the card, he won the third race on 4-year-old gelding Street Shark for owners Stephen Harner and Cheryl LaRoche and trainer Ian Wilkes. The four-time Tampa Bay Downs leading rider went back-to-back in the fourth race on 5-year-old gelding Arturius for owners Jan A. and Fawn Meehan and trainer Dennis Griffith.
Allen returned to the winner’s circle after the sixth race on Only in America, a 4-year-old gelding bred and owned by Casner Racing, LP and trained by Eoin Harty.
Allen has ridden 48 winners at the meeting, eight more than current runner-up Antonio Gallardo. Approaching his 50th birthday in April, Allen says he is riding as well as when he last won the track title in 2010-11.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I keep thinking when it’s going to end, but it’s not so far – knock on wood.”
In today’s ninth race, the $34,000, five-furlong Turf Dash Prep, 4-year-old gelding Pyrite Green rallied late along the rail to edge 9-year-old Hold On Smokey. The winner, who paid $14.00, is owned by Pyrite Stables and trained by Miguel Feliciano – who reaped the winner’s laurels thanks to a skillful ride by his nephew, jockey Ricardo Feliciano.
You can’t walk too far on the Tampa Bay Downs backside without running into someone with a connection to jockey Harry Vega.
Although this is his first season in Oldsmar, the 32-year veteran has ridden for dozens of local trainers in New England, the mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania and the Midwest. With almost 4,100 career victories, Vega ranks 27th among active jockeys in North America.
“To be here in Tampa, to me, is like being back home with a bunch of people I knew growing up,” said the 48-year-old Vega, who earned the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month Award after climbing to fifth in the standings with 15 victories, including a Pelican Stakes victory on 4-year-old colt Palace Barista.
“They’ve seen me go through ups and downs, make my mistakes as a kid and become the adult I am today. I feel like I still have something to prove to them – that their effort on my behalf was worth it. I think that as focused as I am right now, and as dedicated, I can keep up with whatever comes at me.”
One unexpected benefit hurled at Vega at the outset of the season was Palace Barista, a (then)-3-year-old colt bred, owned and trained by Lynne Scace.
Vega was aboard for Palace Barista’s Dec. 4 debut, a six-furlong maiden special weight race that produced a shocking two-length victory at odds of 61-1. Vega finished second on Palace Barista in his next race going seven furlongs, an effort that disappointed him.
“He ran off early in that race, which I was not expecting, then he dropped back and he dropped farther back before leveling off and coming back for second,” Vega said. “I was upset how it happened, but I kept getting on him every day and tried to learn with him and teach him the things he needs to know.”
That diligence paid off when Palace Barista defeated a field of past stakes winners in the $60,000 Pelican at odds of 12-1 in 1:09.94 for six furlongs.
“Harry Vega and I go back a long time, and he’s the man,” Scace said afterward. “I have all the faith in the world in him.”
Vega’s durability can be attributed, in large part, to his work ethic. He works as many as 8-to-10 horses a day, keeping himself fit while learning what makes his equine partners tick.
But he also gives of himself off the racetrack. In 2002, when he was set to ride the champion filly Xtra Heat in the NAPA Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington Park in Chicago, Vega invited his former agent Diana Pimental and her husband John to join him for the event.
“If Harry is your friend, he is going to treat you like gold,” said Diana, a Tampa Bay Downs Association Official and placing judge. “He came over to watch the Super Bowl this year and brought me a yellow rose. He’s one of my best friends, and he is good to everybody.
“Being a jockey is not a job to him. If you watch him closely, he’s always talking to his horses,” she added. “It’s his way of bonding with them, and the horses feel it too. Harry loves what he does, and I think that is why he has had so much success.”
Vega – who grew up in Brooklyn and lived with Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., for four years as a teenager before setting out on his own – has been married twice and has three children: daughters Mercie, 28, and Devin, 14, and son Tyler, 12. The younger children live in Delaware with their mother, former jockey Amy Duross, with whom Vega remains good friends.
Vega finds every day at the track an exciting new adventure. “After so many years of doing this, you have to find a way to look at life and horses and enjoy them. I’ve dedicated so much of myself to the sport, spent so much time away from my family, and I paid the price for that.
“I’m finding happiness in what I do best,” Vega added. “I don’t think I’m better than nobody, but like I say, I can keep up with whatever comes at me right now.”
Thoroughbred racing resumes Thursday with a nine-race card as Tampa Bay Downs enters the five-days-a-week portion of its 2013-14 schedule, Wednesday through Sunday. 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.
The fourth annual Golfest Presented by Valspar golf lifestyle celebration is Saturday and Sunday at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. The highlight of the two-day event is the Celebrity Golf Skills Challenge on Saturday from noon-2:30 p.m., featuring Tampa Bay Rays 2012 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price and his former teammate, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.
Admission both days is $10 for adults, with children 14-and-under free.
Other scheduled Skills Challenge participants include Daren Puppa and Pat Jablonski representing the Tampa Bay Lightning; retired Buccaneers linebacker and Director of Pro Scouting Shelton Quarles and a teammate; rockers Nicko McBrain from the group Iron Maiden and Shawn Drover from Megadeth; Reginald Roundtree and Dave Wirth of Channel 10; Whit Watson from The Golf Channel with former NFL placekicker Ryan Longwell; and WDAE 620-AM radio personality Steve Duemig and 12-year-old IMG Academy prodigy Latanna Stone, who two years ago became the youngest qualifier ever, at 10, for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Each team will compete in a series of golf-skill events, including the “Glass Break,” chipping over a wall, closest-to-the-pin and longest drive inside a grid.
As in past years, numerous big names within the industry – including the world’s leading trick-shot artist, Chuck “The Hit Man” Hiter – will perform exhibitions throughout the two-day extravaganza. Saturday’s stage lineup, which begins at 10:30 a.m., includes long-drive champion and trick-shot artist Mike Ziegler, award-winning instructor Rick Bradshaw and long-time PGA Tour member and Champions Tour winner Jim Dent, known in his prime as the longest hitter on tour.
A popular returning event is the TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) $1,000,000 Hole-in-One Challenge, with entrants having a chance to win the top prize by making an ace in the finals on Feb. 9. Qualifying for the finals will be held throughout both days. The cost to enter is $10. Proceeds benefit TROT, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the safe retirement, rehabilitation and adoption of Tampa’s racing Thoroughbreds.
Golfest hours each day are from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday. Golfest Presented by Valspar is the Tampa Bay area’s largest demo day and golf expo, and golfers will be able to hit new clubs from such manufacturing companies as TaylorMade, Nike, Adams, Cobra, Callaway, Ping, Wilson and Mizuno, among others.
For details on Golfest Presented by Valspar, call (813) 854-4946.

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