Approaching the middle of December, five-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno planned to stay at Laurel Park in Maryland through that track’s current meeting, which runs through March 29.
But when Mother Nature began displaying her nasty side on a regular basis, the Venezuelan-born Centeno knew it was time to return to the racetrack he has called home for the past decade.
“I did well last summer at Delaware (66 victories, third in the standings) and I had won 19 races and a couple of stakes at Laurel,” Centeno said. “But I had never been there in the winter. My agent there, Kevin Witte, and other people told me it wasn’t even cold yet. But it was way too cold for me, so I called Mike Moran (his local agent) and told him I was coming home.”
Centeno didn’t ride his first race at Tampa Bay Downs until Dec. 20, spotting his rivals eight days. But even thought it took him almost two weeks to begin picking up the volume of business of the track’s other leading riders, the 42-year-old Centeno has climbed to fourth in the standings with 12 victories – behind Ronnie Allen, Jr., with 27; Antonio Gallardo, 24; and injured Fernando De La Cruz, 23.
Meanwhile, on today’s card, trainer Kathleen “K.O.” O’Connell saddled three winners, boosting the two-time Tampa Bay Downs leading conditioner into a tie for sixth place in the standings with six victories.
The word that Centeno is back spread far and wide Saturday with his picture-perfect ride aboard 7-year-old New York-bred mare Risky Rachel in the $50,000, six-furlong Minaret Stakes for breeder-owner Sanford Bacon and trainer Juan Coronel.
“I could see from the form that she was a nice horse who was always right there in tough races, and the (assistant) trainer (Freddy Buscail) said she was working awesome,” Centeno said. “They thought maybe she was going to need the race because she had been off more than a year, but she was all class. She broke well, she relaxed perfectly and she did everything on her own, and when I asked her turning for home she just took off.
“When we came back, she wasn’t even blowing. It was like she just walked out of her stall,” he added.
Centeno, who rode the majority of the first 14 years of his career at La Rinconada in Caracas, has always had a love affair with Tampa Bay Downs and the area. From 2006-10 he strung together four consecutive riding titles, averaging a staggering 1.48 winners per performance during that period and setting a track record with 144 victories during the 2007-08 meeting. He earned his fifth crown last season with 90 victories, winning at a 22-percent rate.
“I love Tampa. That’s why I bought my house here,” said Centeno of his decision to leave the bountiful Maryland purses to his hardier (weather-wise, at least) rivals. “I love this racetrack and I love the people. The grandstand is almost always full, and you see pretty clouds every day. And the level of competition keeps improving. When you have this many good jockeys, it’s good for the sport, it’s good for the track and it’s good for the gamblers.
“People think that Tampa Bay Downs is an easier track (to win races). It’s not easier,” Centeno said. “Every single race here is tough, but I like that because better riders make for better races. I didn’t come back here thinking this is my house – it doesn’t work like that.”
Centeno rode one winner today, giving him six victories over the past three days. He captured the eighth race – the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, a mile-and-a-sixteenth, 3-year-old maiden special weight taken off the turf – on Two Jacks Wild, a gelding owned and trained by Dennis Manning.
Trainer O’Connell’s magical Sunday started in the second race with Master the Blues, a 5-year-old mare she owns in partnership with Holli Day and Dennis Holman. Mike Allen rode Master the Blues.
O’Connell also won the third race with Gilbert Campbell’s Florida homebred 3-year-old gelding Pinetree Pro, ridden by Gallardo, and the 10th with Just For Fun Stables’ 6-year-old mare Wildcat Sierra, ridden by Angel Serpa.
Gallardo rode two winners today. In addition to Pinetree Pro, he won the seventh on 4-year-old gelding Falsely Alarmed for co-owners Captain Jack Racing and trainer Anthony Granitz.
Wayne Mogge trained both halves of the exacta in the first race – winner B.A. Love, a 3-year-old filly he also owns, and runner-up Red Bottoms. Scott Spieth rode B.A. Love.
Serious handicappers and casual horseplayers across the country are registering for the “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, an online competition beginning on Festival Preview Day, Saturday, Feb. 1.
The registration deadline is 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, which is the first day of the contest and also Festival Preview Day, highlighted by the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, a traditional Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands stepping stone.
The grand-prize winner receives $1,000 and a seat at the 2015 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship (date and site to be determined). Second place receives $1,000, third place receives $500 and a $500 prize will be awarded to the handicapper selecting the most overall winners.
There is no fee for entering the contest. Complete rules are available at the online site. Registration may be accessed through a link on the track website at www.tampabaydowns.com
or by visiting the contest website directly at www.liveitupchallenge.com
Thoroughbred racing resumes Wednesday with a 10-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.