When Angel Serpa was named Holiday Inn Express & Suites Jockey of the Month on Wednesday, it came as no surprise to those who have witnessed his quick climb since arriving at Philadelphia Park (now PARX Racing) from Bayamon, Puerto Rico three years ago.
Through the first 28 days of the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Serpa has ridden 15 winners from 77 starters – seven on the turf -- with 13 seconds. Serpa has been at his best in stakes events, capturing the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes two weeks ago on the 3-year-old filly Salad Girl and finishing second in three other stakes.
“I was so excited to win the Gasparilla because it was my first $100,000 stakes win, and (trainer) Edward Plesa Jr. helped me a lot in New Jersey. He gave me a lot of good shots,” said Serpa, who was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in North America in 2010 after winning 105 races and amassing $3.46 million in earnings.
The 24-year-old’s success in his first season at Tampa Bay Downs follows a strong performance last year at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he rode 67 winners, several in stakes, with earnings of $2.16 million.
“He has an abundance of patience and a lot of talent,” said Serpa’s agent, Al Dellape. “Those are Angel’s strong points, plus his knowledge of the animals themselves. He has very good hands and communicates well with each horse. He says when he warms them up before a race, he knows what is underneath him, and he goes from there.”
Dellape formerly was an agent for Rick Wilson, who won almost 5,000 races in his career.
Serpa and his wife, jockey/exercise rider Carol Cedeno, have a 3-month-old son, Dylan, and Serpa has a 4-year-old daughter, Emmaries, who lives in Puerto Rico.
Serpa and Dellape agree patience on the racetrack has helped the youngster thrive in the ultra-competitive Tampa Bay Downs jockey colony. “It’s important to stay patient and save ground on the grass. That is what (Dellape) tells me, and I learn something new from him every morning,” Serpa said.
That trait was in evidence when Serpa garnered another turf victory in the ninth race Wednesday, winning the one-mile claiming event by a nose on 3-year-old long shot filly Lets Go Donna for owners Terry E. Davie and Robert Carter and trainer William Downing.
While youth such as Serpa’s must, inevitably, be served, a trio of grizzled veterans made things interesting Wednesday as well.
Scott Spieth, Ronnie Allen, Jr. and Jorge L. Vargas have each been riding Thoroughbreds longer than Serpa has been alive. Each found the winner’s circle Wednesday, despite being at an age when athletes in other sports have long since retired.
Spieth, who is closing in on the 4,000-victory mark for his career, recorded three wins. He won the fourth race aboard Julian Serna, Jr.’s Golf Pal for trainer Gary Caple, dead-heating with Atlantic Paws.
Spieth next won the fifth on the turf on the Joan Scott-trained 3-year-old colt Paulistano, moving up to first when Prized Assault, who beat him to the finish line, was disqualified for interference. Spieth’s third winner also came on the turf for Scott in the seventh race, as he piloted home the 5-year-old gelding Won O Won.
Allen – the defending Tampa Bay Downs jockey champion – won the first two races on the card, with the 4-year-old filly Cosmic Song for owner-trainer Renaldo Richards and with 9-year-old Muted Word for trainer Barbara McBride.
It was the third time this meeting Allen has ridden Muted Word to victory, and win No. 2,765 of the jockey’s career.
The 54-year-old Vargas, who has won more than 3,000 races, won the sixth race on 5-year-old gelding Trojan Pride for Blanca Olivas and trainer Donna Schneider. Vargas – who, like Serpa, is from Puerto Rico – rode one race from 2005-08 because of a dislocated shoulder and a need to get away from the rigors of race riding, but enjoys competing against the young guns, if only on a limited basis.
“I really don’t know (Serpa) that great, but he seems like a pretty decent rider and a nice kid,” Vargas said. “This business, you have to just keep working hard and not give up, because you go up and down. Sometimes jockeys don’t keep working as hard as they did to get to a certain place, and their careers go downward.
“But as long as he stays healthy and keeps working hard and stays focused, he can keep on doing it.”
Live racing resumes at Tampa Bay Downs on Thursday, with a Pick-5 carryover of $9,726.39. The track is open every day for simulcasting, no-limits poker action in the Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.