Raul Mena credits his faith and his family for helping him to come back from a serious accident at 19 and a recent 0-for-36 skid, earns Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month Award; Samy Camacho, Ronnie Allen, Jr., each ride two winners; major Kentucky Derby prep races to be simulcast Saturday.
Tampa Bay Downs jockey Raul Mena was 19 when his mount failed to negotiate the turn in a race at Valparaiso Sporting Club in Chile, throwing him to the ground like a rag doll and placing his budding career in jeopardy.
Mena spent the next six weeks in a comatose state, while doctors and family members marveled he had survived an accident that resulted in broken vertebrae, busted ribs and a broken collarbone. Seven months went by before he was cleared to continue his career.
There were no second thoughts for Mena, who was determined to be a race-rider from the first time his father, Raul Mena, Sr., exposed him to the racetrack.
“It’s the dream for a lot of young people in my country, and after my father helped me find a racetrack job as a groom when I was 14, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” said Mena, the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month.
“My father taught me the way of the horses when I was growing up, and he still works on the racetrack,” said the Santiago, Chile product, who entered jockeys’ school at 16. “I’ve always loved the horses. That’s the passion all of us (jockeys) have, and you can’t ride without it.”
Mena says his faith was unshaken by that 2011 accident; if anything, he feels it was strengthened. Maybe it’s something only jockeys, or trapeze artists, or race-car drivers, can understand.
“God made a miracle in my life,” said the outgoing 26-year-old, who is married to exercise rider Jaqueline Cabral, herself a former jockey whom he credits for supporting him through both the down times and the good times in his stateside career. “I put all my confidence in Him. He gives me the strength to keep going.”
Although he is seventh in the Oldsmar standings with 23 victories, Mena went through a 0-for-36 streak from March 1-17. Granted, Eddie Arcaro would have been hard-pressed to win on most of his mounts, but that kind of cold spell can be damaging to a young jockey’s psyche.
From all accounts, Mena was unfazed. He has posted six victories since to claim the honor, including today’s seventh race with 4-year-old Florida-bred colt Lord Barna for owner DiBello Racing and trainer Kathleen O’Connell.
“Raul believes in himself a lot, and he always wants to do better,” said trainer Victor Carrasco, Jr. “Whether it’s working horses in the morning or riding races, he always tries, and he’ll give me his ideas on how a horse can do better next time.
“He’s always so positive,” Carrasco added. “Even when something goes wrong, he believes something good is coming.”
For his part, Mena knows his best recourse is to greet each day with the same positive attitude and willingness to work that have helped him reach this point in his career. “You have to keep working every day. It (losing races) is part of the business. Tomorrow is another day,” he said.
Certainly, a jockey needs a positive mindset to expect to win on an 88-1 shot, as Mena did March 30 aboard 3-year-old colt Cambre for jockey-turned-trainer David Flores. But that gate-to-wire victory on the turf might not have happened had Mena not heeded advice from the conditioner after finishing third on Higgins, a 101-1 shot trained by Flores, several weeks earlier.
“He told me after that race I was putting too much pressure on the horse’s mouth, and that I had to stay more relaxed to get my horse to relax,” Mena said. “When I rode (Cambre), I remembered that. He felt real relaxed and easy on the backside and gave me a good trip all the way around.
“I’m thankful (Flores) gave me that opportunity.”
One can reasonably expect the Señor Tequila Jockey of the Month Award won’t cause Mena to become less humble or respectful, nor less willing to listen to those who have spent decades in the sport. Mentored early in his career by countryman and Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos, he is eager to soak up knowledge from such Tampa Bay Downs veterans as Jesus Castanon, Willie Martinez and Antonio Gallardo.
“(Castanon) is like a father figure to me,” said Mena, “and all those guys are willing to help me because I’m young and I’m learning. If you want to learn and improve, you have to listen. You probably won’t go too far if you keep making the same mistakes. But if you have the passion to be a jockey, you can learn from everybody.”
Around the oval. Leading jockey Samy Camacho and Ronnie Allen, Jr., each rode two winners today.
Camacho captured the third race on Chase Runner, a 3-year-old colt owned by Krushna Padhi and trained by Laura Cazares. Camacho added the eighth aboard English Laughter, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Gary Davidson and trained by Michael Stidham.
Allen was victorious in the fifth race on Diamond Luckie, a 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding bred and owned by George T. Gurrola and trained by Maria Bowersock. Allen added the ninth and final race aboard Maxximum Energy, a 3-year-old gelding bred and owned by Yellow Diamond Farm and trained by Monte Thomas.
Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through May 5, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 21, when the track is closed.
Otherwise, Tampa Bay Downs 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.
Tacitus, the winner of the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9, and the race’s second and third-place finishers are entered Saturday in major Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve preps that will be simulcast at Tampa Bay Downs.
Tacitus is part of an 11-horse field for the Grade II, $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct. The Wood Memorial is the 10th race on the card.
Jose Ortiz will again ride the Bill Mott-trained 3-year-old colt, who will break from the No. 2 post. He has been established as the 5-2 morning-line favorite.
Also entered is the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, Outshine, who breaks from the No. 10 post. John Velazquez will ride Outshine for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The third-place Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby finisher, Win Win Win, is part of a 14-horse field for the Grade II, $1-million Toyota Blue Grass, which is the 10th race at Keeneland. The Florida-bred Win Win Win, who won the Pasco Stakes here on Jan. 19, is trained by Michael Trombetta and will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., while breaking from the No. 8 post.
Three other Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby participants are entered in the Toyota Blue Grass: fifth-place finisher Sir Winston, seventh-place finisher Admire and 10th-place finisher Dream Maker. Sir Winston and Dream Maker are trained by Mark Casse and Admire is trained by Dale Romans.
On the Aqueduct undercard, Florida-bred World of Trouble is the morning-line favorite for the Grade I, $400,000 Carter Handicap, a 7-furlong main-track event slated as the ninth race. The 4-year-old Jason Servis-trainee, who will be ridden by Manuel Franco, won the 2018 Pasco Stakes here before finishing third in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
World of Trouble won the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Marion County Florida Sire Stakes here on Dec. 15.
Also entered is 4-year-old colt Vino Rosso, winner of the 2018 Wood Memorial and third-place finisher here in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes last year.