For most jockeys, horse racing is a roller coaster of highs and lows. The ability to find a smooth middle ground usually determines their long-term success.
Geovany Garcia learned quickly how fortunes can change on the track. A few months after his 18th birthday, he rode his first winner at Laurel in his fourth lifetime race. Less than two years later, he captured the Grade II, $150,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap at the Maryland track aboard Royale Michele.
In between those two accomplishments, though, the native of Carolina, Puerto Rico experienced his worst nightmare. Trailing a horse ridden by his older brother, Tampa Bay Downs mainstay Luis Garcia, in a race at Laurel, Geovany had nowhere to go but straight ahead when his brother’s horse fell directly in front of his own mount.
Thankfully, Luis’ injuries were limited to broken ribs and a broken wrist, and he was out of action only six weeks. Geovany returned to action the next day, grateful Luis would be OK but more aware than ever of the unpredictable nature of their profession.
“Seeing him fall off that day was one of the most scary things I’ve ever experienced,” said the 26-year-old Geovany, who has joined Luis in Oldsmar this season. “We have always been very good friends, but when we are on the track we’re trying to beat each other.
“What happened made me feel real bad, but we both know it is part of the business. You have to keep your head up and keep going, no matter what happens.”
Geovany’s love for the sport was not diminished by the incident. “I don’t really know how to explain it. I just have a passion for horses and the sport, and every time I race I’m really excited about trying to win,” he said.
Being the brother of a jockey has taught Geovany about the value of relationships in racing. Last April, he strengthened his support system by marrying Kat Zwiesler, whose father, Michael Zwiesler, trained horses at Tampa Bay Downs for William S. Farish III and later worked for Gulfstream Park owner Frank Stronach.
Kat, a galloping assistant for Tampa Bay Downs trainer James DiVito who previously worked for Tom Proctor, always wanted to work at the track. Through mutual acquaintances, she and Geovany began an online friendship a few years ago on Facebook, passing rare idle moments socializing and sharing their racing ambitions and dreams.
Their friendship took a dramatic turn a little more than two years ago after Kat broke her shoulder while working a horse at a training center in Louisville. Word spread quickly within the close-knit Thoroughbred racing community, but a text message she received from Geovany while she was laid up in a hospital emergency room went beyond the typical “get-well-soon” messages.
“He was very concerned and offered to fly from Maryland to Kentucky if I needed help,” Kat recalled. “That is normally how I am when my friends get hurt or they need help, but it surprised me to realize how kind-hearted Geo is. There are no ulterior motives behind anything he does.
“He is just a genuinely good person, and that can be hard to find in any business.”
Geo and Kat began texting and calling each other every day, and toward the end of 2013 she accepted an assistant’s job with trainer Tom Iannotti in Maryland to be with the rider. “I’m the only idiot who is already in Florida who goes north for the winter,” laughed Kat, who was working at the time for Proctor at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, “and I froze my butt off.
“Our friendship grew gradually. Even two years ago when I was working for Proctor in California for eight months and we were both seeing other people, Geo and I stayed in touch every day. Talking all the time like we did, you become fond of someone, and one day you realize you’re in love with them.”
Garcia, who has a quiet, pacific nature, began to confide in Kat on a steady basis. “I called her whenever I had a problem or needed advice. It made things a lot easier because she is somebody who understands what a jockey goes through – how early they have to get up, things we need to be careful about.
“She has the same passion for racing that I do, and that helps a lot. If a horse is sick or injured she usually knows what to do right away, and she knows what kind of equipment will help a certain kind of horse,” Garcia said. “Since we’ve been together, my head is more into the business. I don’t really have any worries.”
Kat also has a reputation for being outspoken. But even though she has strong opinions about what her husband can bring to a horse, she does not try to intervene in DiVito’s decision-making by suggesting he use Geovany.
“Geo has ridden a horse for us and worked some horses for us,” Kat said, “but I always tell Jimmy it’s his decision who he wants to ride. I also tell him that if he wants to put Geo on one of our stakes horses, I’m not going to complain.”
The future prospects for Geovany and Kat within the sport will hinge in large part on their ability to keep building solid relationships. Geovany took a huge step in that direction during the summer and early fall at Belterra Park in Ohio (where he rode 24 winners) by teaming up with trainer Joe Woodard.
Thus far at Tampa Bay Downs, Woodard and Geovany have combined to win five races for the husband, wife and son ownership team of Billy, Donna and Justin Hays.
“We have that connection,” Geovany said, describing his winning ways with Woodard-trained horses. “We actually talked before we came here about how I was going to ride the horses differently, because it’s a different kind of track here and there is usually more of a rush (to be in the top flight) early. The big thing is, he (Woodard) trusts me. I gallop his horses in the morning, and that gives me confidence in the races because I know what they can do and how they run.”
Woodard, who has saddled almost 1,400 winners, does not reach decisions on which jockeys to use lightly. With 65 horses in his care, including broodmares and babies, he spends much of his time at a training center outside Louisville, relying on his Tampa Bay Downs crew to keep the Florida operation running smoothly.
“We promote teamwork in our barn, and Geovany is more than willing to be a key part of our team,” Woodard said. “He is a hard worker, he’s easy to get along with and he follows instructions well. He is not a ‘know-it-all’ kind of guy, but he offers his opinions about a horse, which is real important when I’m in Kentucky so much.
“You have to have the right kind of person for that situation and be able to trust them and take something away from what they tell you. In a race, he is a strong finisher with a knack for getting a horse out of potential trouble and putting them in the right spot to get the most out of them,” Woodard said.
Being devoted to the horses and each other leaves little time for other activities. Geovany and Kat get to an occasional movie or a museum, but most days they have a quiet dinner, shower affection on their two pit bulls and begin preparing for the next round of pre-dawn adventures.
They have yet to go on a honeymoon, although they have tentative plans for traveling to Puerto Rico for a few days to visit Geovany’s family at the conclusion of the Oldsmar meeting.
“We went right back to work (the morning after their marriage ceremony in Baltimore). We knew a honeymoon wasn’t going to happen for a while,” Kat said.
“The horses are a 365-day, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job, but that was no big shock to either of us,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges being married to a racetrack person is we’re together all the time. I know what happens in his day and he knows what happens in mine, and we fret and worry a little more than someone whose spouse works in an office.
“When we get home, he’ll maybe tell me about a horse he rode, or he’ll suggest I try to get a certain horse when it’s done racing and make it a show horse or a pony,” Kat added. “But we try to talk about horses as little as we can. It would drive you crazy otherwise.”
As dedicated as both are to horses, though, it’s rare when the conversations stray too far afield. “I always want to keep doing what I’m doing,” Geovany said.