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February 20, 2019


by Mike Henry
Six victories from 14 starters over four days of racing earns Irish rider the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month Award; another first-time starter, Pep, upsets Egyptian Storm.

Declan Cannon was prepared for a slow start to the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Downs meeting.

“There are a lot of jockeys here, and I have my four or five barns that run a lot of horses at Churchill Downs in the fall,” said the 31-year-old jockey from County Leitrim, Ireland. “So we had to give some of them six weeks or so just to freshen up.”

He also might have missed some opportunities to win races here when he flew to California to ride Dona Bruja in the Grade I Matriarch Stakes at Del Mar on Dec. 2 or Oxy Lady in the Grade I Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos the following weekend.


Declan Cannon

But Cannon is not the type to discourage easily. Over a recent stretch of four racing days, he rode six winners from 14 starters, rocketing into seventh place in the Oldsmar standings.

His hot streak also earned him the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month Award.

“It’s all coming good now,” said Cannon, who was aboard 4-year-old colt Soul of the Hero on Sunday for trainer Gerald Bennett’s track-record-tying fourth victory on the card. “I’m really enjoying it here. I’m keeping busy and staying fit and I’m on some live mounts, so what more could you ask for?”

A product of the Race Riding School in County Kildare, Ireland, Cannon – who rides at Tampa Bay Downs for such Kentucky-based trainers as Ignacio Correas, IV, Ben Colebrook, Ian Wilkes and others – came to the United States about three years ago. Trainer Eddie Kenneally helped him secure a visa, and Cannon was eager to embrace his chance with both hands.

“There are more opportunities here than back home,” said Cannon, who started his career in Ireland, rode for seven years in England and also competed in France, Qatar, Bahrain, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Scotland and Wales. “In England, you might spend as much as six hours a day traveling for one or two rides, then do it all again the next day.

“You can ride a lot more horses here, and I think this country offers more opportunity for the work ethic you put into it. It seems to me that if you put in the work here, the rewards are more fruitful,” he said.

Cannon spent six weeks here two seasons ago before moving his tack to Oaklawn Park to ride for trainers Jack Van Berg, the late Hall of Famer, and Chris Hartman. He enjoyed a solid meeting, then continued his stateside ascent later that year by riding the Correas-trained Dona Bruja to Grade III victories in the Old Forester Mint Julep Handicap at Churchill Downs and the Modesty Handicap at Arlington.

Cannon and Dona Bruja just missed adding the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington to their haul that August, coming up a half-length short against the Chad Brown-trained Dacita.

Although he has become a full-fledged U.S. rider, there are a few things he misses, including the variety of European turf courses that challenge a rider’s skill and thinking ability. “I love the configurations of the tracks over there,” he said. “Uphill, downhill, left, right, it really makes you sharp as a rider. It’s ground-dependent, as well; you really have to think about what your horse needs, because you run on firm ground, soft, good and yielding. There are more factors that come into play.”

Cannon says there is more to riding the Oldsmar turf course well than meets the eye, too. “You have to be smart here, because the turns are so long they can throw you out. You’re just throwing away races if you go three-wide on the turn, which is why I think it’s vital to be patient.”

If Cannon sounds well-grounded and confident in his abilities without being cocky, there is credit to be spread close to home. In September, he married his girlfriend of seven years, Lauren, a former exercise rider who works in the racing office at Churchill Downs and Keeneland and as a paddock judge at Ellis Park.

“She understands the sport and understands how a jockey has good days and bad days,” Cannon said. “She has a good eye for reading a race and can pretty much tell what a jockey is thinking. She understands my routine and she cooks very healthy foods and makes sure my weight is kept in check. (Marriage) just makes my life very easy.”

When you’re content and pursuing your dream while living with somebody you love, it does make it a lot easier to employ the gifts you possess.

Around the oval. Justify’s half-sister was the subject of attention before the eighth race on the turf, but another first-time starter, 3-year-old filly Pep, made a decisive stretch move up the rail under jockey Willie Martinez to pull off a 13-1 upset, defeating Chancetheracer by a length-and-a-quarter. The winner’s time was 1:43.02 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance. Pep is owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and trained by Todd Pletcher.

Egyptian Storm, a 3-year-old filly who is by Pioneerof the Nile out of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify’s dam, Stage Magic (making her a half to the champion), finished fifth, failing to fire but perhaps benefiting from the experience.

Antonio Gallardo rode two winners today. He scored in the fourth race on Ollivander, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Blazing Meadows Farm and trained by Tim Hamm. Gallardo added the ninth race on the turf on Bourbon Endowment, a 3-year-old filly owned by Bourbon Lane Stable and Six Column Stables and trained by Ian Wilkes.

Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:45 p.m. The track is open every day 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.

Kick off your shoes. … and stay awhile at the track’s first-ever “Seafood Fest & Crawfish Boil,” scheduled March 2 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the Backyard Picnic Area. The cost is $35 a person, which includes a seafood boil; shrimp; jambalaya and the fixin’s; wine-tasting; and cigar-rolling, as well as admission to the races, a Tampa Bay Downs program and chances on the prize wheel.

Tickets can be purchased on the track website, , by clicking the Seafood Fest & Crawfish Boil icon and following the prompts. For details, call (813) 855-4401.