Huber Villa-Gomez is one of those jockeys most observers don’t notice until the dust has settled and he has nailed down another top-10 finish in the meet standings.
It has been that way for much of the 38-year-old Peruvian’s career, even though savvy trainers and perceptive bettors have reaped the benefits of Villa-Gomez’s talents (a career 15.6 winning percentage) since he emerged as a force by winning 338 races in 2002-03.
But just about everyone else at Tampa Bay Downs forgot about Villa-Gomez last December – Friday the 13th, to be precise – after he fractured his right ankle when a horse spooked, wheeled and dropped him during the warm-up before a race.
As his long-time agent, Gary Ketring, noted, “Tampa Bay Downs doesn’t get more jocks every year. They get better jocks.”
Which gave trainers accustomed to riding Villa-Gomez plenty of other options, and made him slightly less known than late actor Claude Rains (who played The Invisible Man in the 1933 film classic).
It’s a tribute to his persistence, as much as his ability, that Villa-Gomez returned in time to claim the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month Award before the meeting concludes. The honor is also testament to an outlook on racing and life that kept him from wallowing in self-pity.
“I’ve hustled book for 25 years, and he is the best kid I’ve ever worked for in terms of attitude,” said Ketring. “He never gets upset or complains about anything. When he went to the hospital he said ‘Gary, don’t worry. Things happen for a reason.’
“Huber never comes to work with a frown on his face or says he doesn’t want to ride for this guy or that guy,” Ketring added. “He is just a super person.”
This isn’t the first time Villa-Gomez missed a huge chunk of the Tampa Bay Downs racing season. Nine years ago, he incurred muscle and nerve damage in his back when a horse he was breezing collided with a loose horse in the morning. That injury sidelined him five months.
The ankle injury wasn’t as severe, and Villa-Gomez was able to start galloping in early February, working with many of the runners in trainer Ron G. Potts’ barn. Then, it was another two weeks before he returned to race-riding. He wasted little time making a splash in his return to action, securing his first win back Feb. 22 on 42-1 shot Caiman’s Secret, a first-time starter, for trainer Gary Patrick.
Villa-Gomez says he was about 90 percent healed when he returned to the saddle. “Nobody waits until they’re 100 percent to come back,” he says of jockeys who get hurt. “That’s something every jockey has to face, because every time you get hurt (trainers) are already looking for someone else to ride their horses and when you do come back, you know your business is going to be pretty slow.
“A lot of guys come back 50, 60 percent healthy, and they just hold in their pain. And then some trainers are going to wait anyway before they start using you again, until they see you came back strong,” Villa-Gomez said. “That’s how this business is – it’s hard, but you just keep going.”
So after spending part of his unplanned “vacation” with his son Maxy, 10, and daughter Abby, 8, Villa-Gomez was back doing what he knows best, his way of life since enrolling in a jockey school in Peru 20 years ago.
Business never really picked up for him this meeting. Villa-Gomez was surprised to learn Tampa Bay Downs leading trainer Jamie Ness had named him to ride 8-year-old gelding Sneaking Uponyou on Florida Cup Day in the $75,000 Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint, even though Villa-Gomez had ridden him in two of his previous stakes victories at Tampa Bay Downs (including the 2011 Hilton Garden Inn Sprint, in which he established a then-track and stakes record time for six furlongs of 1:08.69).
Riding Sneaking Uponyou for the first time since July of 2012, the reunion proved (if there were doubters) that Villa-Gomez hadn’t lost anything.
“Jamie told me before the race there wasn’t much he could say, because I knew the horse so well,” Villa-Gomez said of the six-and-a-quarter length victory in near-track record time. “The break was the key. He was very relaxed in the gate, and when he broke on top I let him do what he wanted and kept him happy. When I asked him to do more in the stretch, he took off.”
Villa-Gomez added another victory today with his only mount, piloting 3-year-old filly Zumba It to a maiden victory in the fifth race for breeder-owner Aschinger Bloodstock, LLC and trainer Gerald Aschinger.
Gradually, Villa-Gomez has been recapturing business for his return to Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he has won two of his five career riding titles. And in case you’ve forgotten, this is a jockey who has more than 1,600 career victories – 100 or more in each of the last five years.
“I’m back. I feel strong,” Villa-Gomez said. “This business has a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and it is easier to go down than up. But I’ve been getting on horses since I was 5, and it’s something I’ve always loved. Being a jockey is a hard job, but I’m never going to give up.”
Odds and ends. In today’s featured ninth race, a five-furlong sprint for older horses taken off the turf, 7-year-old gelding Five Star Prince, Gary Wales aboard, edged out Red Rocket Express in 58.01 seconds in a four-horse blanket finish. Baltazar Galvan owns and trains Five Star Prince.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 p.m. The feature is the seventh race, a $25,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth allowance on the turf course for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward.
The morning-line favorite at 5-2 is 5-year-old mare Prickly Pear, owned by Sunshine Racing Stable and trained by Jason DaCosta. Prickly Pear, who will face seven rivals, is 1-for-4 with a second and a third since returning to action in January after being off 18 months. Fernando De La Cruz is scheduled to ride.
Tampa Bay Downs will also present a full 11-race card Saturday, headlined by the eighth, a $25,000, six-and-a-half furlong main-track allowance/optional claiming event for 3-year-olds.
The entire plant will be closed Sunday to allow employees and horsemen to enjoy Easter Sunday with their families and friends.
Otherwise, 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.
Tampa Bay Downs Kentucky Derby Party. Area horse racing fans who can’t make it to Louisville for the 140th renewal of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands can experience the next-best thing at The Trackside Pavilion adjacent to the walking ring on Saturday, May 3.
The annual Tampa Bay Downs Kentucky Derby Party brings together fun-loving souls, serious handicappers and anyone intrigued by the majesty, mystery and strength of the Thoroughbred, providing a full day to savor the excitement and tradition of the most exciting two minutes in sports.
The party begins with the simulcast of the first race from Churchill Downs that morning and lasts until a blanket of 554 red roses are draped across the Kentucky Derby winner’s withers. Adding to the fervor, Tampa Bay Downs will conduct a full card of racing as its 2013-14 meeting winds down to a precious few days.
And if the Derby winner happens to be Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Vinceremos or another 3-year-old that competed here, expect the tremors to reverberate throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Tampa Bay Downs has produced two of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners: 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense and 2010 Tampa Bay Derby third-place finisher Super Saver.
The gates open at 10:30 a.m. The buffet will be served from noon-2 p.m., with a deluxe menu featuring sliced roast beef with Kentucky bourbon and mushroom sauce, grilled chicken breast with Chive Mornay sauce, honey-glazed ham with pineapple mustard sauce and a selection of desserts including Kentucky Derby pie.
Fans will also have the opportunity to enjoy the entire simulcast programs from Churchill Downs and other major tracks across the country.
The cost to attend the Tampa Bay Downs Kentucky Derby Party is $45.95, which includes reserved seating; a full buffet luncheon; a Tampa Bay Downs racing program; a mint julep in a commemorative souvenir Kentucky Derby glass, with the names of all 139 winners; and entry into the Derby hat contest.
Simply put, the Tampa Bay Downs Kentucky Derby party is an annual highlight you won’t regret attending. For more details, call the Tampa Bay Downs Group Sales Department at (813) 855-4401, extension 1386.