When Daniel Centeno came to Miami from his homeland of Venezuela in 1996 to ride at Calder, he thought his talent would enable him to step into the ranks of the leading jockeys.
Instead, the 24-year-old returned home humbled after a few months, having won only two races from 85 starts while struggling to adjust to the way of life on the backside in the United States.
“I was young, and I wasn’t taking care of business like you’re supposed to. I wasn’t focused,” Centeno recalled Wednesday between races. “I wasn’t trying to speak any English, and I think I lost business because of it.
“A few trainers from Calder told me ‘You’re a good rider; you can go anywhere up north and do well.’ But I said ‘I can’t (communicate in) English here in Miami. How do you expect me to go up north and speak English?’ ”
Back in his comfort zone at the fabled La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas, Centeno excelled during the next six-plus years, but he often rode with the gnawing question of whether he could compete at a higher level.
“When I got back to Venezuela I told myself that someday I would have another chance, and it was going to be completely different,” said Centeno, who felt an increased urgency to get back after the birth of his son Daniel in 1999. “I started taking English classes all the time and set my sights on coming back to the United States.”
Centeno returned in 2003 and has been making up ever since for lost time. At 41, he has sewn up a track-record fifth riding title at Tampa Bay Downs, with 83 victories through Friday’s card (Centeno also won a riding title in 2010 at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.).
“It was important for me to get back for the money, for the lifestyle and to help build a better future for my son,” Centeno said.
Young Daniel now lives in southern California with his mother, but Centeno spends most of the summer and the Christmas holiday with the boy. The jockey lives in Tampa with his fiancée, Ashley George, and their 4-year-old daughter, Jazmyn.
For four seasons, from 2006-07 through 2009-10, Centeno was as dominant as any jockey in the history of the track. He rode 540 winners during that period, averaging a staggering 1.48 victories per performance and setting a single-season record of 144 winners in 2007-08.
His mounts earned more than $5-million in 2008 and 2009, and in 2009, he won the then-Grade III, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby on Musket Man, who later won the Grade II Illinois Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Centeno, who has averaged 215 victories a year from 2008-12, is 20th in North America this year with 64. He has ridden three stakes winners at the current meet, including two on Florida Cup Day, giving him a record seven in the state-bred showcase.
His fifth Tampa Bay Downs crown breaks a tie with Ronnie Allen, Jr., and William Henry.
To Centeno, championships are secondary to possessing the skill and drive to go out and compete at his peak. Two years ago, he suffered a dislocated pelvis and separated left shoulder in a midseason spill, an accident that might have cost him his fifth consecutive title. He won 79 races, finishing second to Ronnie Allen, Jr., who won 109. Last year, he finished ninth with 34 victories after riding at Gulfstream the first half of the season.
“From the beginning of this season, I wasn’t putting it in my mind to win the title. My goals were to try to stay healthy, win the most races I can and try to do the best that I can with every horse,” Centeno said. “If I got the chance to win the title, absolutely I’m going to try to win it, but I wasn’t going to put that in my mind because it’s more pressure on yourself.
“I’m proud and happy to win my fifth title here, but the best thing is that I’m healthy,” added Centeno, who along with David Amiss is a Jockey’s Guild representative at Tampa Bay Downs. “I really have to thank all the trainers and owners who gave me the opportunity to ride for them this year.”
Fernando De La Cruz, who is in second place with 75 victories, left Sunday for his spring-summer engagements at Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park. The 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs season runs through May 5.
Centeno has ridden 25 of his winners locally for Jamie Ness, who has locked up a seventh consecutive training title. They will seek to extend their dominance this spring and summer at Delaware Park.
Centeno considers the Ness-trained Lookinforthesecret his favorite horse; they won five six stakes together, including back-to-back editions of the $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes in 2007 and 2008 and the $65,000 Pelican Stakes and $75,000 Super Stakes in a four-week span in 2008.
“Daniel is a big reason for my success,” said Ness, who led all trainers in North America in 2012 with 395 victories. “He has the ability to put a horse in the right spot and rides a smart race. He is very good as a front-end rider, but he is also a very strong finisher. I would classify him as a class act and a student of the game.”
Thorough preparation is a Centeno trademark. By working a full slate of horses in the morning, studying past performance charts and watching replays, Centeno is as skilled as anyone among the local colony in mapping out how a race is likely to be run. “When he comes in the morning to work my horses he is all business, and it shows up in his performance,” Ness said.
Centeno also spends time at home studying the next day’s program, but makes sure to carve out plenty of family time with Ashley and Jazmyn. They enjoy swimming and playing in the park, and Centeno takes his daughter to dancing and gymnastics classes. On off days, they get together with other jockeys and horsemen to play softball and volleyball, barbecue and kick back. The family also attended a Yankees spring training game and took trips to Busch Gardens and Adventure Island.
“Daniel is someone who, when he is done with work, leaves the racetrack at the racetrack,” Ashley George said. “I am from a racing family – my grandfather was a trainer – and I know a lot of people who can’t do that.
“If he has a bad day, we don’t talk about it much,” George said. “He is very dedicated to his job, but when the races are over it’s family time. And he is definitely Jazmyn’s idol. When we are home watching the races, she always wants to know ‘What time is Daddy on?’ ”
The 2012-13 meet has not been without its setbacks. On April 10, Centeno was leading the fifth race on the turf aboard the Ness-trained 4-year-old filly Ten Sweet Kisses when she switched leads and came out slightly into the path off Ronnie Allen, Jr., on Noorelaine.
Although the contact was imperceptible to most race viewers, Noorelaine clipped heels with Ten Sweet Kisses’ back heel, causing Noorelaine to stumble and throw Allen to the turf. He suffered fractured ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated liver and abrasions on his head. Ten Sweet Kisses finished second, but was disqualified and placed last for interference; Centeno later was suspended five days by track stewards.
The incident was devastating to Centeno, who had never caused another rider to be dropped in his 23-year career. Although he saw Noorelaine come on riderless past the wire, he didn’t know she had clipped heels with his horse until informed by jockey Dean Butler as the field pulled up after the race.
“I was on the lead all the way, and I never saw Ronnie,” Centeno said. “Usually when a horse clips heels behind you, you can feel it in the way your horse is going, but I never felt anything. I wanted to see Ronnie after it happened, but the ambulance was gone. I knew when it happened that I wasn’t focused on going back to riding (that day). I was just thinking about him and what I did.”
Centeno texted his concern to Allen, who was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, and was gratified to learn he was doing OK. “When I heard that he was feeling better, everything felt normal again,” Centeno said.
Just two days after, Centeno went down in a spill and was taken to the hospital for examination, then released. He went to see Allen, who assured him he was feeling better and didn’t hold him accountable.
Allen, who is undergoing Laser therapy to promote the healing of his ribs, still has occasional pain, but he hopes to begin galloping horses next week and could be ready for the start of the Presque Isle Downs meet May 12.
“It’s a hard part of this game, especially when it involves a good friend,” Allen said. “But even if it’s somebody you don’t know, you hope and pray they will be OK. After he saw me and knew everything would be alright, I think he felt a lot better.
“We are always picking each other up during the meet,” added Allen, who is third in the meet standings with 57 victories. “We both like to win, but if the other guy is on a losing streak we’ll say ‘Don’t worry, it will come back around.’ We like to see each other do well.”
In fact, part of Centeno’s role as a Jockey’s Guild representative is to help smooth the path for younger riders.
“He doesn’t push on them and tell them ‘Here’s what you need to do,’ but he tries to guide them, especially the younger ones who ask for help,” George said.
It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Centeno was in Miami looking to make headway in Thoroughbred racing stateside.
Danny Coa and Antonio Gallardo each rode two winners Friday. Coa, the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month, has 17 victories over the last 14 racing days. He won the third race, a two-turn maiden claiming event, on 4-year-old gelding Amber Road for owner Wayne Sargent, Jr., and trainer Greg Griffith. Coa returned to the winner’s circle after the fourth race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf claiming contest, on 5-year-old gelding Gulf Wind for owner Denis Dwyer and trainer Enrique Alonso.
Gallardo also won back-to-back races. In the sixth, he took 5-year-old mare Sing Me a Lullaby gate to wire at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf for owner Robert A. Meier and trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Gallardo won the seventh, a six-and-a-half furlong race, on 3-year-old filly Circular Rainbow for owner Equels Marro Racing LLC and trainer Carl Larsen. For the record, Circular Rainbow was claimed for $25,000 by trainer Jorge Navarro for new owner Julian De Mora.
Saturday’s 11-race card begins at 12:35 p.m. There is a Super High-5 carryover of $6,065.99.
The feature is the third race, a $24,500 allowance for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs. The 3-2 morning-line favorite in the field of five is the Kathleen O’Connell-trained Street Gem, who won an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming race here going a mile on the turf on March 15 before finishing fourth in the Secret Grace Stakes at Gulfstream on March 31.
Also likely to contend is the Gerald Bennett-trained Wild About Irene, who finished second in the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at a mile-and-40-yards here on March 9.
From now through May 4, players in The Silks Poker Room have the opportunity to qualify for a drawing to win a Toyota 4Runner from Wesley Chapel Toyota Honda. In any of the cash games, a hand of aces-full or better with one card earns one drawing ticket; four-of-a-kind or better with both cards earns two tickets; a straight flush earns three tickets; and a royal flush earns five tickets.
Sundays and Thursdays are double-ticket days. The drawing for the 4Runner will be held May 5; the winner must be present to attend. In addition, nine tickets will be drawn that day for $599 cash prizes. The Silks Poker Room is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m.
Tampa Bay Downs 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.