Fan Appreciation Day at Tampa Bay Downs was a chance for track officials, horsemen, jockeys and fans to reflect on the highlights and narrow misses of the track’s 88th season of Thoroughbred racing.
The 2013-14 meeting officially concludes Monday, June 30, which is the first day of Tampa Bay Downs’ second annual, two-day Summer Festival of Racing that concludes on Tuesday, July 1.
Entering today’s action, the wins leaders in three categories – Owner, Trainer and Jockey – had already clinched their respective titles. The first two – Midwest Thoroughbreds and Jamie Ness – are familiar names, but the top jockey, 26-year-old Antonio Gallardo, represents a first for both himself and his homeland of Spain.
The champion in the Apprentice Jockey category has yet to be made official. The current top two – Octavio Vergara, Jr., with five victories, and Juan De La Cruz, with four – departed Oldsmar weeks ago, but they retain the option of returning for the season-ending June 30 card.
Here are thumbnail sketches of the 2013-14 champions.
As an 18-year-old jockey in Spain, Antonio Gallardo incurred a perforated liver in a spill that hospitalized him for two months and sidelined him from racing for a year.
So although he is now 26 with a wife and two children and has been riding in the United States full-time for more than five years, it’s understandable that Gallardo calls his mother Paqui in the Spanish city of Cadiz every night after the races to assure her he is safe.
“My first two years here I was not doing well, and my mother kept asking why I didn’t come back to Spain to ride,” Gallardo recalled after finishing the meeting with 124 victories, 14 more than four-time champion Ronnie Allen, Jr., and the fifth-highest Tampa Bay Downs total all-time. “But being in the United States is like a dream for me. I like the life, and there are a lot more opportunities for jockeys here.”
Gallardo is believed to be the first jockey from Spain to win a meeting title at a major North American Thoroughbred track.
Today was another “ho-hum” day at the office for Gallardo, who rode four winners for the seventh time this season to give him 32 winners over the last 13 racing days. With an additional three seconds from his eight mounts, he also passed Allen as the meeting’s top money-earner, with purse winnings in excess of $1.7 million.
Gallardo’s strike rate of 26.3 percent was also the meeting’s best.
Allen, who won four races five times, wasn’t standing still over the final seven weeks. But while he rode 29 winners over that period, Gallardo was hotter than an August day in south Texas, winning a staggering 54 races over the last 28 racing days.
“He wanted the title bad, he was focused on doing it and he worked hard and rode hard,” said his agent, Mike Moran, a former jockey who won the 1977-78 Tampa Bay Downs riding crown. “You could see every day he kept putting his horses in the right spots, and he showed a willingness to work in the morning. And he made a strong connection with trainers by listening to how they wanted their horses to run.
“Every race counted for him. When you move up a long shot in a race, trainers see that, and they’re likely to put you on a horse that has a better chance the next time,” Moran said.
Gallardo is moving his tack to Presque Isle Downs for the meeting in Erie, Pa., beginning next Sunday, May 11. He, wife Polliana and baby daughter Christa were driving up tonight (5-year-old son Carlos is staying at the family’s Palm Harbor, Fla., home with his grandfather to finish school).
This will be Gallardo’s first time in the United States riding outside of Florida; Moran will handle the books for him and three-time defending Presque Isle champion Pablo Morales.
“I’m ready. I think I’m ready,” he said, smiling. “I will try my best and if I finish second, it’s good for me, and if I can win, it’s better for me. All I can do is try my best all the time.”
Gallardo did not win a stakes race at the meeting. Five-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno won five: the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Ring Weekend; the Minaret and Manatee Stakes on Risky Rachel; the Turf Dash on Ancil, in track-record time; and the Florida Cup Skinny’s Place of Anna Maria Island Sophomore Turf on Ex Pirate.
In 2012, the Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., operation of Dyer, Ind., residents Rich and Karen Papiese established a North American record by sending out 542 winners. While that mark appears virtually untouchable (the previous record-holder, Dan Lasater, won 494 races in 1974), Midwest’s Tampa Bay Downs dominance seems likely to continue into the indefinite future.
With 45 victories from 162 starters, Midwest won its fifth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title. The runner-up is Dennis Ward and Jeanne Shand’s Ridenjac Racing outfit, with 14, followed by Glen Hill Farm, Amaty Racing Stables and Cindy Patrick, each with nine.
Jamie Ness is the trainer for Midwest at Tampa Bay Downs. Midwest employs four other trainers throughout North America on a full-time basis: Roger Brueggeman, Tom Amoss, Chris Richard and Laura Perillo (Midwest also has a couple of horses with Dallas Keen).
Midwest has led North American owners in victories each of the last four years and has been the runner-up in Eclipse Award balloting as Outstanding Owner each of the last three years. The stable leads all owners in wins for 2014 with 101, and its purse earnings of more than $1.9 million trail only Kentucky Derby-winning owners Steven Coburn and Perry Martin and Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey.
Midwest set a Tampa Bay Downs record two seasons ago with 79 victories. The operation has won more than 2,000 races since diving into the sport on a full-time basis in 2009.
The Papieses’ main business is Midwest Store Fixtures in University Park, Ill. The company is a leader in the design, manufacturing and implementation of retail merchandising displays, fixtures and environments.
The Papieses own 200-acre Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla., where they keep young horses preparing for the racetrack, runners being rehabbed, a handful of broodmares and retired horses ready to take the first step for a second career off the track.
Since the 2009-10 season, Tampa Bay Downs had been an ideal place for Midwest to gather early-season momentum. “I don’t think there will ever be a time that we don’t run at Tampa, especially with Jamie (Ness) living there,” Rich Papiese said Saturday.
“It’s a good place to claim horses, rotate stock and get them ready for the long haul, and horses that leave Tampa Bay Downs run well everywhere. I think Tampa Bay Downs will figure in our plans no matter what our business model becomes.”
The Papieses, who have three grown children and 10 grandchildren, are planning to streamline their operation and take more time “to smell the roses,” as well as put more emphasis on quality over quantity by becoming more active at Thoroughbred sales.
While he and his trainers receive most of the acclaim, Papiese is quick to credit the backstretch workers who watch over the horses. “Without them, there is no horse racing industry,” he said. “Their days start early and end late. They are the unsung heroes of our sport.”
Heron, South Dakota native Jamie Ness isn’t big for setting long-term goals. Like professional football players from a previous generation, his modus operandi is to “grab a lunch pail and go to work every day.”
The results fall somewhere between impressive and incredible. At 39, Ness has saddled 2,086 winners, including 395 in 2012 when he led all North American trainers in victories and compiled almost $6.8 million in purse earnings. He recorded career victory No. 2,000 in November at Laurel with Caylee’s Song.
After saddling 221 winners last year, good for sixth place in North America, Ness is currently eighth this year with 76 victories.
A resident of nearby Odessa, Fla., with his wife Mandy and baby daughter Hannah (the couple is expecting another daughter next month), Ness nailed down his record eighth consecutive Oldsmar training crown weeks ago. He has 53 winners from 181 starters at the meeting, 16 ahead of runner-up Gerald Bennett.
Ness also leads all Tampa Bay Downs trainers in win percentage among those with 30 or more starters (his 29.28 mark edges Tom Proctor’s 29.21 strike rate).
Ness established a Tampa Bay Downs record with 79 victories two seasons ago. He tied for the Oldsmar crown with Gerald Bennett in 2010-11 and Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10.
Next season, Ness will aim for his ninth consecutive title. The late Don Rice won eight Tampa Bay Downs training crowns during an 11-season span from 1994-95 through 2004-05.
“We think that if we can get enough horses that are good enough for the meet, we have an excellent chance at winning the title,” Ness said. “It’s great to win again because there is always good competition at Tampa.
“It is really a credit to our staff, the riders and the owners,” Ness added.
A personal highlight for Ness at the meeting came on April 5, Florida Cup Day, when his 8-year-old gelding Sneaking Uponyou won the $75,000 Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint. Sneaking Uponyou, who also won the race in 2011, is owned by Jamie and Mandy’s Jagger, Inc., stable. His time of 1:09.08 in the Sprint was the fastest six-furlong mark of the meeting, and he also posted the fastest six-and-a-half furlong time of 1:16.18.
Another Ness-trained 8-year-old, Midwest’s Guam Typhoon, has the meeting’s fastest five-and-a-half furlong time of 1:02.94.
Proctor and H. Graham Motion led the track’s trainers in stakes victories with three apiece. Proctor won the Suncoast Stakes with Please Explain, the Wayward Lass Stakes with Dress the Part and the Florida Cup Tampa Turf Classic with Old Time Hockey.
Motion’s stakes victories came in graded events: with Cloud Scapes in the Grade III Endeavour and Grade III Hillsborough and with Ring Weekend in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.
See I A, an 8-year-old gelding owned by Averill Racing LLC and trained by Gerald Bennett, is the leading equine winner at the meeting with five victories, one more than eight other horses. See I A was claimed by Bennett for $6,250 from his first local start on Dec. 4 for the trainer’s Winning Stables, Inc., and later transferred to owner Rich Averill’s stable.
See I A won at five-and-a-half, six, six-and-a-half and seven furlongs. His winning time of 1:03.32 for five-and-a-half furlongs on April 23 was .53 seconds off the track record.
See I A – a Florida-bred son of Safe in the USA, out of Beautiful Spy – is 22-for-53 lifetime, including a victory in the 2011 Pelican Stakes for then-owner Midwest Thoroughbreds and Jamie Ness.