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Luis Garcia understands if Tampa Bay Downs fans got the idea the past few years that he was better suited to distance and turf races.
After all, his biggest victory at the track came in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby in 2011 at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the dirt on Watch Me Go, and he has done well locally for such noted turf trainers as Jonathan Sheppard, H. Graham Motion and Arnaud and Leigh Delacour.
Still, it never hurts to set the record straight.
“I can ride the ‘bullrings,’ ” he said laughing, referring to the shorter ovals. “I was the leading rider at Charles Town (a six-furlong track, in 2003) when I had the ‘bug’ (apprentice weight allowance).”
No jockey can win without the right horses. But attitude means a lot, too. And Garcia is the first to admit his job became just that – a job – on too many mornings during the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs meeting.
Most athletes are their own worst critics. And after a gradual drop-off in wins the past several years, Garcia realized upon arriving at Tampa Bay Downs last fall it was time to take stock.
The familiar Garcia smile has returned to the Oldsmar winner’s circle – where he’s seventh in appearances this meeting, with 16 – and more significantly, in his day-to-day dealings on the backstretch.
For the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month, getting on a bunch of horses every morning is pure pleasure, which wasn’t always the case last season when he slumped to 17th in the standings with 18 victories.
Notably, Garcia has excelled at sprint distances of seven furlongs and less, with 10 victories from 44 starts (a 22.7 percent rate, fourth best at the track).
 “This is the first year here in Tampa that I’ve really worked hard breezing and galloping horses every morning, because I’ve been sitting low for so long. I need to think about my family and the future of my kids,” said Garcia, who is married with a 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old stepdaughter. “I think I’ve got my head on more straight, and I feel stronger. I’ll be 30 in September, and it’s no time for games.”
Talent has never been a question with Garcia, who rides in the mid-Atlantic region each summer and fall and whose younger brother Geovany is a jockey.
The elder Garcia rode 201 winners in 2005 and has 1,360 in his career and a 14.5 winning percentage. His 2011 Tampa Bay Derby victory on Watch Me Go for trainer Kathleen O’Connell came in his first season at the track, and he rides locally for many top trainers, including Sheppard, Motion, the Delacours, Dale Bennett and William Bradley.
But those closest to him – including wife Elizabel; his agents, former jockey Herson Sanchez and Maryland agent Marty Leonard; and Arnaud Delacour, who became the full-time trainer for the Delacour stable last year to permit wife Leigh to care for their 18-month-old son, Luca – gave Garcia the advice and encouragement he needed to raise his game a notch.
“Every time I need a push, Arnaud will pull me to the side and talk about it,” Garcia said. “He’ll tell me when I make a little mistake and what I need to do to improve.”
“Luis has always been a hard worker, but we have more young horses this year, so he is in the barn more and he schooled them himself. I’m very happy that he gets to know them before they race,” said Arnaud Delacour. “He has always had a great spirit, and it looks like he is finally maturing. I’m glad everything is falling in place for him.”
“I see a strong work ethic in the morning, which has made Luis stronger and put him more in tune with the horses he rides,” said Sanchez. “And by galloping more horses in the morning, he has familiarized himself with the best places to be on the track in the afternoon.”
Garcia – who won the first race today going six furlongs on the dirt aboard 3-year-old colt No Returns, a first-time starter, for breeder-owner Stella F. Thayer and Delacour – put his versatility on full display a week ago.
He won back-to-back races for Delacour and breeders-owners Mr. & Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone. The first was at five-and-a-half furlongs on the dirt on a first-time starter, 3-year-old filly First Glance. The next was at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf on 3-year-old colt Special Envoy, making his second start.
The Firestones owned Genuine Risk, who in 1980 became the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby. “I always try to make my best impression for those kind of people,” Garcia said. And he realizes the only way to do that is by bringing his “A” game to work each and every morning.
Van Berg joins Hearts Reaching Out festivities. Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, whose best-known horse, Alysheba, won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic and was the 1988 Horse of the Year, will appear at Tampa Bay Downs March 2 and 3.
Van Berg – the son of a Hall of Fame trainer, Marion Van Berg – will be at the track Sunday, March 2 to sign copies of his book JACK, From Grit To Glory: A Lifetime of Mentoring, Dedication and Perseverance, written by Chris Kotulak.
On Monday, March 3, Jack Van Berg will be the guest auctioneer at the 22nd annual Hearts Reaching Out dinner and auction to benefit the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division. The dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. under the tent just north of the grandstand, followed by live and silent auctions of various sports and racing memorabilia, paintings, prints and a beach-resort vacation.
The Hearts Reaching Out festivities begin with the annual scramble golf tournament at 11 a.m. at Cheval Golf and Country Club in Lutz. The cost for the tournament, dinner and auctions is $100, while the cost of the dinner and auctions only is $20. For details, call Kathy at (813) 854-1313 or Sharyn at (813) 494-1870.
Jack Van Berg was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985, 15 years after his father and two years before Alysheba claimed the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The younger Van Berg won an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer in 1984.
Alysheba retired after his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at Churchill Downs as Thoroughbred racing’s all-time money earner with winnings of $6,679,242 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
The 77-year-old Van Berg, who began training in 1957 and has sent out two starters this year, has saddled 6,417 winners, the fifth-best total all-time.
Vega rides two winners. Veteran jockey Harry Vega booted home two winners on today’s card, giving him 23 for the meeting. In the fifth race on the turf, Vega won aboard 5-year-old gelding Onetwopunch for owner Triple K Stables and trainer Richard Ciardullo, Jr. Vega also won the sixth race on the 5-year-old mare Reynolds for breeder-owner Gary Caple and trainer William Downing.
In the seventh race, a five-and-a-half furlong allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event for older horses, 8-year-old gelding Guam Typhoon narrowly missed the track record, speeding home in 1:03.12. The record of 1:02.79 was set two years ago by Lady of Greatness.
Guam Typhoon is owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and trained by Jamie Ness. He is now 15-for-30 lifetime. Daniel Centeno was the winning jockey; he also rode Guam Typhoon when the Kentucky-bred won three consecutive stakes in 2012.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. There is a Pick-5 carryover of $32,222.96. 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.

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