As he signed autographs on his return to the jockeys’ room after winning his 1,000th race in the United States at Tampa Bay Downs on Wednesday, Leandro Goncalves’ wide smile masked his emotions.
Thoughts of his father – whom Goncalves lost touch with soon after he began riding Quarter Horse races in Brazil when he was 10 – flooded his memory (six years later, 16-year-old Leandro found out his father had died shortly after they were separated).
Recollections of putting his career on hold for 18 months after coming to the U.S. in 2005, to take time to study the styles of top American jockeys while working as an exercise rider, came rushing back.
Goncalves also reflected on his feelings for trainer Garry Simms, for whom he had hoped to win No. 1,000 Monday when he traveled to Turfway Park in Kentucky to ride Simms’ Flashy Lassie in the Gowell Stakes (she finished fourth). Simms has been battling multiple myeloma in his spine for two years. So no, victory No. 1,000 (and No. 999, which came in the previous race Wednesday) weren’t just numbers for Goncalves. Not by a long shot.
“It feels great. It means a lot,” said the 29-year-old Goncalves, his voice breaking. “I wish my dad was alive to see me, but I know he is in a better place. He was the one who taught me to ride. He always wanted me to be a jockey.”
Goncalves, who began riding horses bareback when he was 7 to herd cattle in Brazil, estimates he won about 300 races in his homeland. He refused to get discouraged when his business slowed upon his arrival stateside, and has emerged the past three years as a force in Kentucky, the Midwest and now Tampa Bay Downs, where he won 66 races last season.
His two victories Wednesday both came for Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness, aboard the 5-year-old gelding Repenter in a $16,000 claiming race and the milestone 1,000th on 6-year-old gelding Rich Hero in a seven-furlong starter allowance.
“I’ve only started with him the last couple of years, but I’ve been watching him and he is the kind of guy I like riding my horses,” Ness said. “He is a class act and a guy who comes to work every day, and that is what I like most. When he works a horse for me in the morning, we notice any little traits or quirks the horse has and he remembers it in the afternoon. Those little things make a big difference.”
Goncalves rode two horses at Turfway on Monday, finishing fourth in both races. “I wanted to win for Garry Simms because he is like a father to me. The doctor gave him two weeks to be alive two years ago, but he is a strong man. He has always taught me and helped me in my life and my career.”
Entering the final days of 2011, Goncalves has 295 victories on the year, trailing only Deshawn Parker and Ramon Dominguez in wins. He currently sits atop the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 12 victories.
Danny Coa rode three winners on Wednesday’s card. Live racing action resumes Thursday at Tampa Bay Downs with a 12:25 p.m. first-race post time.