Jose Espinoza has ridden in New York for 14 years, so he knows something about cold weather. As the temperature kept dropping Saturday afternoon, though, Espinoza remarked how chilly he felt when accepting his Jockey of the Month plaque after the eighth race.
But with a $150,000 purse and a Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes victory on the line a race later, the 43-year-old Espinoza warmed up in a hurry.
Espinoza kept 5-year-old Swift Warrior within striking distance of a moderate pace throughout before asking for his best in the stretch, and the Kentucky-bred son of First Samurai-Afleet Summer responded.
Swift Warrior – who finished third in the 2012 Tampa Bay Stakes – wore down pace setters El Commodore and Alley Oop Oop and had enough left to withstand a belated charge from the favorite, 2011 Tampa Bay Stakes winner Doubles Partner.
Swift Warrior is owned by James Covello and James Dolan and trained by John Terranova II.
Swift Warrior’s winning margin on a good turf course was a half-length, with Doubles Partner and Alley Oop Oop finishing in a dead heat for second, a head better than 2012 Tampa Bay Stakes runner-up El Commodore in fourth.
The 2012 Tampa Bay Stakes winner, Roman Tiger, finished eighth in the nine-horse field.
Swift Warrior ran the mile-and-a-sixteenth on a turf course labeled good in 1:43.14. It was the sixth victory in 20 starts for the winner, and first-place money of $90,000 raised his career earnings to $430,843.
Three weeks earlier, Swift Warrior had won his previous start, the Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, also under Espinoza.
And the Tampa Bay Stakes was the third graded triumph since Jan. 26 for the pairing of Terranova and Espinoza, who won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs with Falling Sky on Feb. 2.
“This horse (Swift Warrior) is my best friend. He is a real professional,” Espinoza said. “If we need speed he has it; if we decide to wait on the speed like today, he will do that. I was able to wait with him until the final turn and he made a response there that won us the race. All he needed was a clear path, and we had that.”
Swift Warrior paid $7.20 as the second betting choice.
Terranova’s assistant Jason Desilets saddled the winner and heaped praise on Espinoza. “The way it unfolded was all up to Jose,” Desilets said. “He knows this horse well, so we didn’t need to give him many instructions. It was a little quick coming back from Houston and this was a tough field, but the horse is doing very good.”
Espinoza’s belief in Swift Warrior was evident in the confident way he warmed him up before the race. Clearly, horse and rider both benefited from the warm-up.
The connections of Alley Oop Oop were ecstatic with his effort. “He gave 110 percent. He was in a tight spot in deep stretch,” noted trainer Stanley Gold. “You can’t be upset to place in a graded stakes, and we live to fight another day.”
Fernando Jara, jockey on Alley Oop Oop, thought he had a great shot before Swift Warrior ranged up outside. “I was sure we would run a big race,” Jara said. “The pace was just right for us and we put the leader (El Commodore) away, but we never got away from the closers.”
Doubles Partner closed well but top impost of 124 pounds, two more than the winner, may have been significant.
Angel Serpa on El Commodore did an excellent job slowing down the pace on the front end through fractions of 24.73 seconds for the quarter-mile, 49.69 for the half and 1:13.96 for six furlongs, but it just wasn’t enough.
“He tries his heart out every time,” trainer Greg Griffith said of the 6-year-old El Commodore. “I was a little concerned about the headwind down the backstretch with him being on the lead, but there was nothing we could do about that. But it might have hindered him enough to get him beat. He is always going to give his all and he ran his race.”
Espinoza warmed up even more in the 10th race, winning on the turf on first-time starter Sweet On You, a 3-year-old filly owned by Ten Broeck Farm, Inc. and trained by Christophe Clement.
Fernando De La Cruz continues to be the hottest jockey at the track, riding four winners to give him eight over the last three days. The 26-year-old native of Peru is in third place in the standings with 35 victories.
De La Cruz kicked off Saturday by winning the first race, a six-furlong starter allowance, on 5-year-old mare Whatsnottolike for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and trainer Jamie Ness. De La Cruz won the fourth and fifth races back-to-back – on 5-year-old mare Bellamy’s Rose for owner Edward C. Sexton and trainer Forrest Kaelin and on 3-year-old gelding Chazzy Hustle for owner Sundance Thoroughbreds and trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr.
He won again for Midwest and Ness in the eighth race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, on 5-year-old Escort.
Sunday’s 10-race card begins at 12:35 p.m. The ninth race, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming for 3-year-old fillies on the turf, features a return to race-riding by trainer Gary Boulanger aboard his Spring a Latch, Boulanger’s first mount since a spill forced his retirement eight years ago.
Tampa Bay Downs currently races five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. 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.
The inaugural “Walk for Roz” to benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure fight against breast cancer drew a turnout of about 100 -- including jockeys, horsemen, officials, pony riders and friends of the late Dr. Rosalyn Randall – who walked the 1-mile main Tampa Bay Downs oval under sunny skies before Saturday’s first race. Randall, the track’s Association Veterinarian for more than 30 years, died last spring of breast cancer.
Most of the walk participants were dressed in pink, and pony riders wore pink shirts and helmet covers and used pink saddlecloths throughout the afternoon. Members of the starting gate crew also wore pink shirts.
The seventh race was contested as the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Purse/In Memory of Roz Randall. The 6-year-old gelding Hiyaben won the seven-furlong event for owner Cindy Patrick and trainer R. Gary Patrick, with apprentice jockey Ricardo Mejias rallying the winner from off the pace late.
Hearts Reaching Out. The Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division’s “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament and Charity Auction and Dinner will be held March 4. The RTCA provides spiritual, emotional, physical, social and educational services to the workers at the race track.
The tournament will be a four-person scramble at Countryside Country Club in Clearwater beginning with an 11 a.m. shotgun start. The top three teams will receive prizes. The dinner is at 5:30 p.m. under the tent in the Tampa Bay Downs Picnic Area, followed by the auction and an awards banquet at 7 p.m.
Cost is $100 for golf, dinner and auction, $20 for dinner and auction. Tickets are available at the Chaplain’s Office. For details or to reserve a spot, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 298-1576.
Items to be auctioned include racing and sports memorabilia, signed items, photographs and paintings.
Proceeds benefit the RTCA, a certified 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. The RTCA, Tampa Bay Downs Division also receives financial support from Tampa Bay Downs, the Horsemen’s Benevolence and Protective Association and individual donors. Information is available at the web site www.rtcatbd.org