Nearly a century ago, poet Robert Frost wrote of the choice faced by countless adventurers in his epic “The Road Not Taken,” concluding:
I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.
Jockey Antonio Gallardo faced such a momentous decision about five years ago – whether to continue riding in his homeland of Spain, where he had begun to establish himself as a promising youngster, or embark on a grand journey by moving his tack to south Florida.
“I had told my friend Jennifer Bidgood, who trains about 30 horses in Spain, that I hated the cold weather in Madrid, and she kept asking me ‘Why don’t you go to the United States?’ “ recalls the 26-year-old Gallardo, who will be honored during Saturday’s card as the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month. “But it’s a nine-and-a-half hour flight and I didn’t want to leave my family, so I told her ‘No way.’ ”
One morning when Gallardo came by her barn, Bidgood handed him a present – an airplane ticket to Miami – and an assurance he would still have a job if things didn’t work out. Meanwhile, a Spanish horse racing writer, Jorge Gomez, contacted a jockeys’ agent at Calder who agreed to lend a helping hand upon Gallardo’s arrival.
Gallardo still had to perform, and a nearly disastrous 7-for-176 start left him questioning whether he made the right decision. But by the end of 2009, he had fallen in love with everything American racing offers, so he put his nose to the grindstone and kept working.
Now, with a hugely successful 2013 under his belt – 101 victories, more than $2-million in earnings and a track-record four consecutive stakes victories on a single card at Calder Casino and Race Course last summer – recognition is coming at a faster rate than Gallardo could have imagined.
Through today’s card, Gallardo is third in the jockey standings with 19 victories, behind only four-time leading rider Ronnie Allen, Jr., and injured Fernando De La Cruz. His decision has also been a success on a personal level: he and his wife, former jockey Polliana Oliveira – whom he met at Calder – are expecting their second child on Jan. 24.
“It was tough at first because nobody knew me, and not too many jockeys come from Spain,” recalls Gallardo, who owns a house in nearby Palm Harbor, Fla. “When I asked for a chance and told trainers where I was from, they would look at me and say ‘Do they even race horses in Spain?’ La Zarzuela in Madrid, where I rode a lot, is a big track, so that was frustrating. But I worked hard every day and kept trying, and everybody saw I could ride good horses. When people started giving me a chance, I won some races and they were happy.”
Gallardo finished eighth in the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs standings with 38 victories, including an upset triumph aboard 6-year-old Flatter This in the $60,000 Challenger Stakes on March 2 for owner Blackacre Farms, Inc., and trainer Kathleen O’Connell.
That victory, while rewarding, paled in comparison to the events of Aug. 24 at Calder during that track’s Juvenile Showcase. After finishing out of the money on his first four mounts that day, Gallardo turned things around by rallying 2-year-old filly Flat Out Charming to a nose victory in the $75,000 Lindsay Frolic Stakes for trainer Rodolfo Garcia.
Next up was a wire-to-wire score on the turf in the $75,000 Catcharisingstar Stakes on filly Secret Kitten for O’Connell. Two stakes triumphs is a great day in any jockey’s book, and Gallardo dressed quickly, preparing to join Polliana for the short drive to Gulfstream for a later riding assignment.
Not so fast. O’Connell’s south Florida go-to rider, Eduardo Nunez, had been thrown by his mount in the Catcharisingstar and had to take the rest of the day off. Just like that, Gallardo inherited three more stakes mounts for O’Connell.
After telephoning his apologies to his Gulfstream connections, Gallardo won the $125,000 Susan’s Girl Stakes on Scandalous Act and the $125,000 Affirmed Stakes on My Brown Eyed Guy. He might have made it five in a row, but his final mount, Union Cash, was scratched after flipping behind the gate.
“When I won that fourth stakes, it was the best day of my life,” Gallardo said. “I still can’t believe that. It seems like every year I do better and better, plus I get lucky. When things start going bad, I don’t worry – I just keep trying, doing the best I can all the time.”
Gallardo has ridden nine winners over the first three full Sundays of the 2013-14 meeting, including four on Dec. 22, when he swept the track’s three turf races. But his success isn’t limited to a single day of the week, or a particular surface.
“Antonio has always been a good jockey – he just needed a chance to ride good horses,” said his agent, Mike Moran. “He has a good attitude with every horse he rides. He is so happy-go-lucky, he thinks he can win with everything.”
Versatility is quickly becoming Gallardo’s strong suit. “I like riding dirt and turf, being in front or coming from behind,” he said. “Wherever the horse is comfortable, I’m comfortable too.”
That has become abundantly clear, even for a young athlete more than 4,000 miles from home.
On today’s card, 5-year-old gelding Nicklaus Way, the runner-up in the 2013 Challenger Stakes, rallied late to win the third race – a one-mile allowance/optional claiming event on the turf – by a neck from Super Chunky, who was disqualified for interference and placed fourth. Quincy Hamilton rode Nicklaus Way, who is owned by Lothenbach Stables, Inc., and trained by Ian Wilkes. A son of 2006 Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Bluegrass Cat, Nicklaus way is 5-for-20 lifetime.
In the fourth race, 4-year-old filly Concerted Effort became the first three-race winner at the meeting, drawing off to a seven-length victory from Evil Secret in the mile-and-40-yard claiming event. Marlon St. Julien rode Concerted Effort, who is owned by Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, Inc., Tom Fitzgerald and Geoff Roy and trained by Jason DaCosta.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.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.