As an apprentice jockey at Aqueduct two years ago, Angel Serpa soaked up knowledge from Hall of Fame member Edgar Prado, perhaps best known as the rider of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
The lessons from Prado didn’t end when they left the jockeys’ room.
When the races ended, Serpa retrieved Prado’s discarded program from the trash can. At night, he studied the veteran’s notations and comments, learning how Prado sized up a race based on the past performances of his own mount and the rest of the horses.
“I tried every day to learn something new,” said Serpa, who has taken Tampa Bay Downs by storm this season by riding 72 winners, second in the jockey standings to Leandro Goncalves. “I saw how he marked the program – where the speed was in the race and how each horse ran – and it taught me a lot.
“I listen to everybody and watch everybody. I watch all the races from every track, every jockey. Edgar Prado stayed in the same corner of the room with me at Aqueduct, and he would look at the replays with me. He let me know when I made a mistake, and told me not to do it like that the next time,” Serpa said.
The 24-year-old Serpa – a native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico – is leaving Tampa Bay Downs after Sunday’s card to ride next week at Atlantic City and Meadowlands in preparation for the May 12 opening of Monmouth Park, where he was the third-leading jockey during last year’s full meet with 67 victories.
Serpa was an accomplished apprentice; in 2010, he was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey after winning 105 races and amassing $3.46 million in purse earnings (Omar Moreno won the award).
But the pages of Thoroughbred racing are littered with hot-shot apprentices who never have amounted to much after losing their weight allowance. At Monmouth last summer and fall and here at Tampa Bay Downs, Serpa has shown his determination to rise into the elite category.
“With a little bit of luck, I think he could take off,” said Tampa Bay Downs Association Steward Dennis Lima. “He has a good head on his shoulders, and you don’t see him get in trouble a lot. He knows where he is at on the track, and he’s a very strong rider. He’s a gentleman and has never been a problem to the stewards.
“He’s very patient on a horse, he knows how to save ground and he rides the turf well,” Lima said. “Since I’ve been here, there have been a lot of good riders that came through here early in their careers and have gone on to become top jockeys – Jose Lezcano, Jesus Castanon, Manoel Cruz – and I think this kid has the same kind of ability as those I mentioned.”
Serpa’s skill on the turf was on full display Feb. 25 in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes. Earlier that day, he learned his grandmother in Puerto Rico had died, filling him with sadness. But when it came time to ride 28-1 shot Roman Tiger for owner-trainer Dennis Manning, Serpa raised his game to a championship level.
The result was a nose victory for the 7-year-old gelding – who had not won in almost two years – as Serpa saved ground along the inside every step of the way for his first graded-stakes triumph as a jockey.
“When I won, I said ‘This is for my grandmother,’ because I think she helped me win the race,” Serpa said. He flew home afterward to be with his family, and they celebrated the life of Porfiria Rodriguez and Serpa’s success. “Everybody was so happy when they saw the news in the Daily Racing Form about me winning the Grade III,” Serpa said.
Family continues to be a big part of Serpa’s story. He is married to fellow jockey Carol Cedeno, who currently rides at River Downs in Ohio and Indiana Downs (in fact, Cedeno was scheduled to ride 11 races combined Saturday at the two tracks).
While both are competing, Cedeno’s cousin cares for their children, 3-year-old daughter Angelica and 7-month-old son Dylan (Serpa’s 4-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Emmaries, lives in Puerto Rico with her mother).
Serpa is proud of his wife’s accomplishments, and for now they are content to ply their trades in different parts of the country. It isn’t easy being apart, though. After riding at Meadowlands next week, Serpa plans to go to Indiana to see Cedeno and the kids before reporting for duty at Monmouth.
“I talk to Carol every day. She’s a good jockey and works hard,” Serpa said. “I miss her and the babies. It is hard in this business when you are married and working somewhere else.”
Serpa enjoys both the daily competition and the camaraderie among his fellow jockeys. Starting off at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) in 2009, he received guidance from brothers C.C. Lopez and Carlos Lopez and Tony Black.
At Tampa Bay Downs, he credits Willie Martinez, Scott Spieth and Daniel Centeno, among others, for teaching him how to handle himself as a professional. “If you need help they will help you, but we all are hungry to win,” Serpa said.
“After the race we can go get something to eat or something, but on the track is different. It’s funny because in the races you are fighting against everybody, but you come back to the room and are friends again.”
A strong spring and summer at Monmouth will gain Serpa additional exposure, but for now he is planning to return to Tampa Bay Downs for the 2012-13 season. “People tell me they think I have a good chance to ride at Gulfstream Park next winter,” he said. “But for me, I need one more year here learning more.”
It might not be too many years before Serpa’s fellow riders are plucking his tossed-out programs from the waste basket for instruction.
Serpa rode three winners on Saturday’s card, beginning in the second race with 6-year-old mare Sing It Again for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and trainer Jamie Ness.
The combination of Midwest, Ness and Serpa scored again in the eighth race with 4-year-old colt Yankysjazz. In the ninth race, Serpa again proved masterful on the turf, rallying the 6-year-old gelding Empty Handed to victory for owners Stuart Sackowitz and David Gherman and trainer Jane Cibelli.
Huber Villa-Gomez rode two winners Saturday, giving him eight over the last seven racing days. Both were maiden-breaking efforts for trainer William Downing, who was honored Saturday as the Hurricane Grill & Wings Trainer of the Month.
In the first race, first-time starter My Dad Harold proved best for owner Martine Broussard. Downing and Villa-Gomez also won the fifth race with Vitium, a 3-year-old colt owned by Leonard Rubacha. Vitium’s victory came in the Lambholm South Race of the Week at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a first-race post time of 12:40 p.m. The final live cards of the 2011-12 meeting are Friday, May 4(Kentucky Oaks Day); Saturday, May 5 (Kentucky Derby Day, gates open at 10 a.m.); and Sunday, May 6 (Fan Appreciation Day).
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.