Six-time Oldsmar riding champion Daniel Centeno places primary emphasis on being a father; 1997-1998 leader Jesse Garcia returns to winner's circle after 6-year hiatus; Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint runner-up World of Trouble to compete in Saturday stakes; top trainer Gerald Bennett sends out three winners.
Daniel Centeno flew to Maryland last Saturday to ride 2-year-old gelding Alwaysmining to an impressive victory in the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Futurity at Laurel Park for trainer Kelly Rubley.
Five weeks earlier at Aqueduct in New York, Centeno reeled in a much bigger out-of-town catch, piloting 4-year-old gelding No Dozing to a runaway score in the Grade III, $200,000 Bold Ruler Handicap for conditioner Arnaud Delacour.
Flying to compete in big weekend races is not out of the ordinary for established jockeys such as Centeno, whose 2,700-plus victory total since coming to the United States from his native Venezuela 15 years ago includes six graded stakes and two Tampa Bay Derby trophies.
But Centeno’s most personally rewarding trip occurred Monday, when he traveled to a Tampa Chick-fil-A restaurant to watch his 10-year-old daughter Jazmyn perform with her 5th-grade classmates in a holiday concert.
Jazmyn, whose smile could probably light every Christmas tree in the family’s neighborhood, sang and played the guitar. You know the identity of the hard-nosed professional athlete who was dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief throughout the event.
“Yes, I was crying, because I was so happy,” said Centeno, whose eight victories in the early stages of the Tampa Bay Downs meeting earned him the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month Award. “She is growing up so fast and she loves (performing). She loves to dance, too, and she is getting more confident and more relaxed every time.
“I really don’t have words to express how I felt, except that I was so, so proud,” added Centeno, whose 19-year-old son Daniel – who hopes to play football in college – lives in southern California. “I’ve been caught up in my career all these years, but now that my kids are getting older, I want to be with them as much as I can before everybody goes their own way.”
Of course, Centeno, who turns 47 Tuesday, puts sentiment aside on the racetrack, where he begins this season in search of a record seventh Tampa Bay Downs title (he is tied with Mike Manganello for the most riding crowns in track history). He prides himself on his fitness, and he says he is working a few more horses each morning than in past seasons after hiring Mike Moran as his agent.
“I’m blessed to be healthy, fit and as strong as ever,” said Centeno, who had an incredible run from 2006-2010 when he won four consecutive Oldsmar titles while averaging 1.48 winners per racing day. His condition and attention to detail when it comes to judging a horse’s ability and running style pay off in excellent opportunities, such as that afforded with Alwaysmining, whom he rode to an earlier victory at Laurel in October.
Centeno raised eyebrows when he hired Moran, who also represents defending champion Antonio Gallardo, who has won four of the last five Tampa Bay Downs titles. “My agent last year, John Weilbacher, stayed in Maryland to be the agent for Angel Suarez,” Centeno explained. “I’ve worked with Mike before, and he is one of the best agents here.
“Antonio and I are good friends, and he and I talked about it and agreed we wouldn’t have any problems,” Centeno said. “There are some barns he rides everything for and some I ride for; we each have our own business and it is the trainer’s choice who to ride. If something else happens, Mike will make the call.”
Beyond the incentive of providing for his family and winning races for his owners and trainers, Centeno knows he has to keep pushing hard to stay competitive with a new generation of riders determined to make their mark on the sport.
“It’s always going to be competitive, but with the jockeys that are here now, the races are better, it’s better for the track and it’s better for business,” he said. “The jockey colony here is like a big family, but I’m trying to beat them and they’re trying to beat me. That’s why I have to keep pushing myself.”
Jesse Garcia returns to winner’s circle. Although he exercises horses on virtually a year-round basis, 59-year-old Jesse Garcia had not ridden in a race before today in almost two years. He had ridden only 20 races since his last victory, in July of 2012 at Presque Isle Downs.
Trainer Ben Colebrook was aware of Garcia’s story, if not the specific dates. He is also supremely confident in Garcia’s skills as an exercise rider; Garcia worked Colebrook’s 2-year-old star Knicks Go this year leading to the colt’s victory in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and his runner-up effort in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
So when Garcia told Colebrook he thought he could win today’s third race on 3-year-old filly Elusive Bae, who is also owned by the conditioner, Colebrook didn’t hesitate to give him a chance.
Waking up the echoes from a time 21 seasons ago when he won the Tampa Bay Downs riding title, Garcia rallied Elusive Bae for her first victory from 10 starts at odds of 8-1 in the maiden claiming event, which was switched from the turf to the main track.
“Jesse has done a great job since he came to work for us in the spring,” Colebrook said from Kentucky. “The filly had been training better than she had ever run, and he had a lot of confidence in her. I was more than happy to give it a try, and it worked out perfectly.
“I’m thankful for Jesse that he wanted to ride her. This filly has been a little tough to figure out, and he did it,” Colebrook said.
Garcia’s victory was met with heartfelt applause by fans surrounding the winner’s circle. It is no cliché to say Garcia treats folks the way he wants to be treated, and he has always absorbed life’s heartbreaks in equal measure with its triumphs.
“My legs were getting tired at the sixteenth pole (of the mile-and-40-yard event), and I was just hoping she would keep going,” said Garcia, who held Elusive Bae back early while the leaders dueled up front. “When we turned for home, I thought we might have a shot, and she finished up well.”
It was career victory No. 2,028 for Garcia, who seemed to take it in stride as he made the familiar – but long-awaited – walk back to the jockeys’ room.
“It always feels great to cross the finish line first,” he said. “We get old, but that doesn’t get old. That never gets old.”
World of Trouble set for return. Last season’s Pasco Stakes winner, 3-year-old colt World of Trouble, is entered in Saturday’s $125,000 Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Marion County Florida Sire Stakes, a 7-furlong event for FTBOA-registered sophomore colts and geldings sired by an FTBOA-registered Florida stallion.
The Marion County FSS is the seventh race on the card Saturday.
The Jason Servis-trained World of Trouble, who finished third in the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, will face eight opponents. Antonio Gallardo has been named to ride.
Switched to the turf in August, World of Trouble won a pair of turf sprints in New York before finishing second by a neck to Stormy Liberal in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs.
All told, four stakes will be contested worth a combined $450,000 in purse money on the track’s annual Cotillion Festival Day. The other stakes are the $125,000 FTBOA City of Ocala Florida Sire Stakes, for 3-year-old fillies; the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes, for 2-year-olds; and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes, for 2-year-old fillies.
The track’s annual Cotillion Festival Day begins with the Touch Vodka Brunch at the Downs at 9 a.m. under the Trackside Picnic Pavilion Tent.
The cost for the delicious country-style breakfast is $8 and includes free Grandstand admission and a Tampa Bay Downs program, plus a meal consisting of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, fresh fruit, beverages and pastries.
Attendees can watch the morning workouts and meet with horsemen and jockeys. Tickets may be purchased in the General Office the next two days or on-site Saturday.
Four stakes races are on tap, with combined purse money of $450,000.
Around the oval. Leading trainer Gerald Bennett sent out three winners. He captured the first race with Jiffy Josh, a 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Harold L. Queen and ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr. Bennett added the seventh race with Adios Nardo, a 9-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Averill Racing and ridden by Feargal Lynch.
Bennett made it a hat trick in the ninth, winning with 4-year-old gelding Polished Steel, owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables and Ray Rech and ridden by Daniel Centeno.
Huber Villa-Gomez rode back-to-back winners. Villa-Gomez scored in the fourth race on 24-1 shot West Horizen, a 2-year-old filly owned by J and R Equine Corp. and trained by Javier Negrete. Villa-Gomez added the fifth race aboard Irony of Reality, a 3-year-old filly bred and owned by The Elkstone Group and trained by Ron G. Potts.
Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs conducts racing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 23.
The track is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25 for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.