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February 14, 2020


by Mike Henry
Three-year-old Triple Crown hopeful misses track record by .02 seconds; Pablo Morales loves the lawn; Jose Batista is the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month.

When Dudley Square stumbled at the start of the sixth race, unseating jockey Daniel Centeno, jockey John Velazquez aboard race favorite and fellow Todd Pletcher-trainee Gouverneur Morris turned to “Plan B.”

Few jockeys are more proficient in making successful strategy changes during a race than Velazquez. Gouverneur Morris did his part, racing to a 1 ¼-length victory from Untitled in the allowance/optional claiming event in a time of 1:38.88 for the mile-and-40 yards on the main track, .02 seconds off Jackson’s track record.

Centeno was taken off his mount in the seventh race as a precaution, but was reported to be fine afterward. Dudley Square completed the course and walked off under his own power.

The victory came in the first start for Gouverneur Morris since he finished second on Oct. 5 at Keeneland in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity.

“I had to change my strategy (when Dudley Square lost his jockey), because I was expecting that horse to be on the lead,” Velazquez said. “But it worked out anyway. He finished real nice. This was a real tough race to come off the bench, but you have to start somewhere.”

Five horses were entered, all nominated to the Triple Crown. Letmeno finished third and Sounion was fourth.

Velazquez had ridden Gouverneur Morris when he broke his maiden on Sept. 2 at Saratoga by 9 lengths in a 5 ½-furlong race on a sloppy track.

Barry Irwin of co-owner Team Valor International, who bred and owned 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, said he was “relieved” after the race.

“Johnny told me that the plan was for (Dudley Square) to set the pace, but when that horse lost his jockey (Gouverneur Morris) had to go up and do the dirty work (keeping within range of Untitled) on the turn,” Irwin said. Velazquez had to get after him a bit in the stretch, but Gouverneur Morris left no doubt of his advantage today.

“He’s kind of a quirky horse. In the morning, he’ll get halfway down the stretch and kind of lose interest or something, then he’ll just refocus and take off,” Irwin said. “That’s kind of what he did today on the turn. It looked like he was floundering for a second, then when Johnny got after him he put (Untitled) away.

“Each of his last three workouts, he has improved so much,” Irwin added.

Pletcher’s plan for Gouverneur Morris was to have two races before the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, one “easy” and one stern. “If he runs first or second next time and we feel good, then we’ll go to the Derby. If not, there are plenty of other races,” Irwin said, addressing the fact Gouverneur Morris needs Kentucky Derby qualifying points to ensure a spot in the field.

Irwin, who owns the colt in partnership with WinStar Farm, said the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 is too soon for his next race.

Around the oval. Saturday’s Sprint Showcase Day card shines a spotlight on speedsters of both sexes. The eighth race, the 36th edition of the $100,000 Pelican Stakes, brings together nine males 4-years-old-and-upward, with 6-year-old Killybegs Captain the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the 36th edition of the 6-furlong event on the main track.

Killybegs Captain, who is the defending champion, is trained by John P. Terranova, II and will be ridden by Samy Camacho. He will break from the No. 7 post.

Other likely contenders include 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding He Hate Me, a Stanley Hough-trainee who will break from the No. 9 post under Pablo Morales, and Mucho, a Bill Mott-trained 4-year-old colt who will break from the No. 1 inside post under Antonio Gallardo.

A dozen older fillies and mares are entered in Saturday’s 39th running of the $50,000, 6-furlong Minaret Stakes, which is the 10th race. The morning-line favorite at 2-1 is 6-year-old Florida-bred mare Lady’s Island, the winner of eight of nine starts in 2019. She captured three stakes, including the Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes at Gulfstream, and finished her campaign on a five-race winning streak.

Lady’s Island, who is trained by leading Oldsmar conditioner Gerald Bennett, will start from the No. 3 post with Emisael Jaramillo in the irons.

Also well-credentialed are Midtown Rose, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly trained by Saffie Joseph, Jr., and last season’s Gasparilla Stakes winner, trainer Ian Wilkes’ 4-year-old Molto Bella. Midtown Rose will break from the No. 6 post under Camacho and Molto Bella will start from the No. 4 post under Daniel Centeno.

The 11-race card Saturday begins at 12:12 p.m.

Pablo Morales rode three winners today, equaling his output of Wednesday. Morales was on 5-year-old gelding Lundqvist in the third race on the turf for owner Vince Campanella and trainer Keith Nations. Morales added the seventh, also on the grass, with 3-year-old gelding Alley Oop Johnny, a maiden-breaking son of Animal Kingdom, for owner Three Crowns Farm and trainer John Rigattieri.

Morales added a third turf victory in the ninth race on Fox Rox, a 9-year-old gelding owned by Mark Hoffman and trained by Dennis Ward.

Batista is Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month. Jose Batista tries to pattern his riding style and mental approach after Hall of Fame member John Velazquez. After winning three consecutive races on Jan. 25 at Tampa Bay Downs, Batista was eager to compete against his idol on the Feb. 8 Festival Preview Day card.

That opportunity was snatched away on Feb. 2 when Batista was thrown in the sixth race after his horse clipped heels soon after the start. Batista, who incurred multiple injuries, was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, where he spent the next three days.

Although there is no date set for his return, Batista and the Oldsmar racing community were relieved to learn his injuries are not career-threatening. The Chepo, Panama product, who turned 23 on Feb. 6, believes he can come back stronger than before.

“Of course I feel bad, because everything was going well and I was picking up more business,” Batista said through interpreter Gabriel Castro, his valet in the Tampa Bay Downs jockeys room. “But every jockey understands the risks when they get on a horse. I’m young, I feel like I have a lot of potential and my career is really just beginning.”

Batista is a soft-spoken soul, a quality which probably has prevented him from getting more notice at the Oldsmar oval, where he is seventh in the meeting standings with 19 victories. But his hot streak before his accident was impossible to overlook: nine victories from 40 mounts, resulting in his selection as the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month.

A graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Technical Jockey Training Academy in Panama, where he began his career, Batista earned his first U.S. victory in 2017 at Gulfstream Park. He competed mostly in south Florida before coming to Tampa Bay Downs this season, capturing the Grade II Hardacre Mile Stakes at Gulfstream in 2018 on Conquest Big E.

Tampa Bay Downs trainer Juan Arriagada considers Batista mature beyond his years. “He is very professional in his dealings, and he’s a good kid who always tries hard,” Arriagada said. “The way he rides, he lets horses feel comfortable with him, and he helps a lot of horses. He’s very quiet, but I think he is a strong person, so it won’t be hard for him to come back. And he’s a young, healthy guy, so that will help.”

Castro, his valet, is impressed by Batista’s single-minded focus on improvement. “He’s the kind of rider who wants to make every horse better,” Castro said. “It doesn’t matter if his horse is 5-1 or 50-1, he keeps pushing and never gives up. I think he has a great future in racing.”

For now and the foreseeable future, Batista will be on the road to recovery. But his love for racing ensures that when he returns, he will devote himself 100 percent to reaching his goals. “I want to have a good connection with the horses I ride,” he said. “I hope to keep getting better and better so I can keep winning races, and eventually make it at tracks like Keeneland and Saratoga.”

Sunday is Kids & Family Day, with games, pony rides, bounce houses and other family-themed events in the Backyard Picnic Area just north of the paddock. Also, one race will be designated as the “Generation Z Special,” with children invited to the winner’s circle for a group picture with the jockeys.

Tampa Bay Downs races each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 3, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 12, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, the Oldsmar oval 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.