A late arrival in Oldsmar and the departure of stables he has shared success with in past seasons have combined to limit jockey Angel Serpa’s opportunities during the 2013-14 meeting.
Only in recent weeks has he unleashed the skills and savvy that led many observers to predict stardom for the 26-year-old native of Puerto Rico from the time he was a finalist for the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey four years ago.
“It started a little hard for me this year,” said Serpa, whose patience and ability to size up pace helped him win a combined 128 races at Tampa Bay Downs the past two seasons. “I tried to stay relaxed and kept working hard, but I didn’t have much business on the dirt (races).”
Throw in concern about the professional future of his wife, fellow jockey Carol Cedeno, and it becomes clear that Serpa’s stay at Tampa Bay Downs hasn’t been a picnic.
Cedeno returned recently to riding after fracturing two vertebrae in her back in a spill last August at Penn National, and her first victory back – March 8 on Hey Soul Sister – came with an ankle the size of a grapefruit, according to Serpa. She had injured the ankle in a starting-gate mishap.
“It affected me when she was at home because she is always with me at the racetrack,” Serpa said.
With two children at home – Angelika, 5, and Dylan, 2 – Serpa also felt conflicted about whether he wanted his wife to keep riding. But he quickly realized Cedeno’s love of horses and desire to excel overrode his misgivings.
“We talked about her not riding any more, but she loves her job and has been a jockey since I met her,” Serpa said. “I respect her not just because she is my wife, but because she is a strong person.”
Despite a decrease in his business this season – he has had 175 mounts, less than half the total of leading jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. – Serpa has been heating up of late, climbing to 27 victories and earning the latest Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month Award.
On March 14, Serpa teamed with trainer H. Graham Motion for a pair of impressive maiden victories on the turf, the first with Augustin Stable’s 3-year-old colt So Kitten and the second with Qatar Racing, Ltd.’s sophomore colt Iconic Artist. Those victories came less than a week after he rode Motion’s 3-year-old filly Interrupted to a third-place finish for Pin Oak Stud in the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks.
Serpa next guided first-time starter Sister in Arms to a maiden triumph on the grass for trainer Christophe Clement on March 15. And today, for good measure, he piloted 8-1 shot Guts and Glory to victory in the ninth race for Motion and owner Live Oak Plantation.
He has earned a mount in Saturday’s $60,000 Challenger Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt surface on Tulira Castle, a 4-year-old colt bred and owned by Curtis C. Green and trained by James DiVito. Tulira Castle won a prep for the Challenger with Serpa aboard on Feb. 28.
Serpa hopes to have a return call on Interrupted April 12 in the Calder Oaks. After that, he’ll be headed to Monmouth in New Jersey, where he has finished among the top six each of the past three seasons.
“I think he is definitely on his way to the next level,” said Serpa’s agent, Al Dellape. “He has all the skills and he keeps learning.”
Serpa is excited about strengthening the connection with Motion when he heads north. The trainer operates out of the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland while competing in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Kentucky. “He gave me a great shot, and I will stick with him as much as I can,” Serpa said. “In this business, you have to keep working hard because you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Today’s action. Veteran campaigner See I A’s bid for a fifth consecutive victory was thwarted in the seventh race as Rocky Gap benefited from quick early fractions and scooted up the rail late for a three-quarter length victory from Creative Art. See I A finished third, another neck back.
The winner’s time for the six furlongs under jockey Brian Pedroza was 1:10.76. Rocky Gap was claimed by trainer Dennis Ward from his previous start, also a victory, for his Ridenjac Racing outfit (named for his grandchildren Riley, Denae and Jack).
The 8-year-old gelding See I A, owned by Averill Racing, LLC and trained by Gerald Bennett, lost no stature in defeat after being pressured early by Five Star Prince and engaging with Creative Art from the quarter-mile pole on. The 2011 Pelican Stakes winner is 21-for-51 lifetime.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. There is a Pick-5 carryover pool of $21,154 and a Super High-5 carryover pool of $14,928. 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.
Jockeys and Jeans. Tickets can be purchased online for the inaugural Jockeys and Jeans event on Saturday, March 29 to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
The PDJF is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides financial assistance to about 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. The fundraiser, which will be held under the tent in the track’s Backyard Picnic Area, is open to the public. Tickets are $35.
Among the jockeys scheduled to attend are Hall of Fame members Pat Day, Jacinto Vasquez and Walter Blum; Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Mike Manganello, a former leading jockey at Tampa Bay Downs; recently retired jockey Ramon Dominguez; Patti Cooksey, who rode more than 2,100 winners; Diane Crump, the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby; and Barbara Jo Rubin, the first woman to win a race at a recognized track.
Also expected are four-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey William Henry; William Klinke, a former Tampa Bay Downs jockey known as “The Colonel;” Michael Straight, who rode his first winner in 2009 at Tampa Bay Downs only a few months before becoming paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Arlington; former Tampa Bay Downs jockey Darrell Brown; and Julia Brimo, who has made a remarkable recovery from a career-ending cervical spinal cord injury suffered in a spill at Keeneland.
Dominguez, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a spill at Aqueduct in January of 2013 that forced his retirement, will be the event’s featured speaker. The 37-year-old Dominguez is an unpaid advocate for the work done by the PDJF on behalf of disabled riders.
Dominguez retired with 4,985 victories, winning Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Jockey in 2010, 2011 and 2012. His situation has raised awareness within the Thoroughbred industry of the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries on jockeys, in some cases years after they have stopped riding.
Fans attending Jockeys and Jeans will have an opportunity to have their picture taken with the jockeys, enjoy a barbecue luncheon and beverages and bid on unique racing memorabilia. Attendees will receive an autographed commemorative poster. The gates will open at 11 a.m. There will be a general autograph session at 2:30 p.m. on the first floor of the grandstand.
Tampa Bay Downs jockeys will donate a mount fee on the day of the event. For details, visit www.pdjf.org
online or call retired jockey and author Dr. Eddie Donnally at (818) 653-3711.