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Published Feb 23, 2024
by Mike Henry
Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Daniel Centeno

Storm the Court and Yes I Am Free, who will line up side by side in the starting gate in Saturday’s $100,000 Leinster Turf Dash Stakes, will have arrived there via entirely different paths.

Four years ago, Storm the Court was a leading Kentucky Derby candidate, based on his 2019 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory at Santa Anita and subsequent Eclipse Award as Champion 2-Year-Old Colt.

Although he has been a consistent performer at the graded-stakes level, with career earnings of $1,406,453, Storm the Court is 0-for-20 (11 in graded company) since his date with destiny as a 2-year-old, including a sixth-place finish in the COVID-19-delayed 2020 Kentucky Derby. He has made three starts since being transferred to the barn of trainer William E. Morey, finishing second in back-to-back turf races here this season at the Leinster Turf Dash distance of 5 furlongs.

The 7-year-old will break from the No. 5 post in the Leinster Turf Dash, scheduled as the ninth of 10 races on Saturday’s card, under jockey Pablo Morales. Storm the Court is owned by his TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-winning trainer, Peter Eurton, in partnership with David A. Bernsen LLC and Susanna Wilson.

Directly outside him will be Yes I Am Free, an 8-year-old Florida-bred gelding who showed potential early in his career but did not fully blossom until trainer Laura Cazares claimed him for $62,500 from an allowance/optional claiming victory on April 15, 2021 at Gulfstream, also going 5 furlongs on the turf.

Now owned by Szalay’s Farm & Market owners John and Paula Szalay under their Golden Kernel Racing Stable banner, Yes I Am Free is a three-time stakes winner under Cazares’s tutelage, including back-to-back victories in the Grade III Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint Stakes in 2022-2023. He has earned $489,890 for his current connections.

In his most recent start, on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream, Yes I Am Free set a course record of 54.89 seconds for 5 furlongs in an allowance/optional claiming affair. Yes I Am Free will be ridden by Antonio Gallardo.

Seven other colts and geldings will attempt to bide their (limited) time between the likely pace-setter Yes I Am Free and Storm the Court, who is expected to be rallying from near the back of the pack. It should make for an exciting race, but no more so than the day Cazares claimed Yes I Am Free, who is the 5-2 morning-line favorite.

Saturday’s 10-race program begins at 12:18 p.m. The $100,000 Leinster Lightning City Stakes, for older fillies and mares sprinting 5 furlongs on the turf, is the seventh race on the card, with lightly raced 4-year-old filly Just a Care the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the nine-horse field. Samy Camacho will ride for trainer George R. “Rusty” Arnold, II.

Both stakes are being held a week after being postponed due to rainy weather and wet conditions.

Cazares, who will saddle another former claiming horse, 4-year-old filly Fulminate, in the Leinster Lightning City, recalls being told by the Szalays at dinner in early 2021 to “find us a stakes horse.” When the striking chestnut Yes I Am Free, already a stakes winner, came onto the track with a $62,500 price tag attached, she didn’t hesitate long.

“I liked him on paper and thought we could tweak a few things and do better with him. He was well-built, and when he walked past me he gave me ‘the look,’ ” she recalls. “So I dropped the claims slip and spent the whole race chewing my nails. But the way he looked at me made me feel that connection and told me, this is the horse. I don’t really know how to explain it.”

He won that day in 55.37 seconds and seems to keep getting better with age.

“This is the best he’s ever been,” Cazares said. “The way he acts, the way he looks at you, like he’s a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old. He’s a cool horse who has done a lot for us.”

Similarly, Storm the Court exudes class around the barn and in his training, according to Morey.

“He’s the only Breeders’ Cup race winner I’ve ever had in my barn, and he is a very classy horse,” Morey said. ‘Most of the real good ones have that class to them. He’s a very handsome horse who carries himself that way, like a lot of stallions do.

“All three of his turf sprints for me have been good. He hasn’t gotten lucky enough to win one, but he has been finishing consistently well,” Morey said. “I thought his second start here was better than his first, and he definitely still has the desire to compete.”

Besides having the favorite for the Leinster Turf Dash, Cazares has the second morning-line choice in the Leinster Lighting City in Fulminate, whom she claimed last year at Gulfstream for $20,000 for her own Past The Wire Racing and Road Trip Racing, owned by Gary and Angela Greenburg. There were 12 other entities who dropped a claims slip that day, and the Florida-bred Fulminate went to Cazares, who calls her “a spicy redhead” and “my angry bird.

“She’s a hothead like me,” Cazares said, joking.

“I liked her for quite some time, and I always wanted her. It got a little rocky when we went to Colonial Downs last summer, but she has improved a lot and is back to performing the way I thought she could.”

Fulminate is 2-for-9 with Cazares, with two seconds and two thirds. Carol Cedeno will be the jockey.

An even better story than Storm the Court, Yes I Am Free or Fulminate may emerge Saturday, such as trainer Derek Ryan’s Leinster Turf Dash entrant Phantom Smoke, who could be the cherry on top of a transatlantic double with the trainer’s 3-year-old Book’em Danno in the Saudi Derby.

But those runners mentioned illustrate the pride and high hopes the majority of horsemen carry with them to the post. Who brings their ‘A’ game, and which horses get the best trip, are two of countless factors that can decide the outcome.

“There are some very nice horses in there, and it looks like a very evenly-matched race,” Morey said. “Sometimes it’s who shows up and who gets the best trip.”

Centeno is Boot Barn Jockey of the Month. As one of Tampa Bay Downs’s Jockeys’ Guild representatives (along with Antonio Gallardo), Daniel Centeno is often called on to instruct and mentor the track’s abundance of younger, less-experienced jockeys on the importance of staying safe on the track.

“Sometimes (the stewards) will tell us to talk to someone, or a rider will come to me and ask for advice. I’m always here, and I like it,” said Centeno, who won the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes here on Feb. 10 on Power Squeeze.

“I like to help people learn. I’ve been riding now for 34 years, and I’ve been a Jockeys’ Guild member since 2004,” said the Caracas, Venezuela product. “I want to teach young guys how to ride better. Sometimes they don’t listen, but I like to help everybody I can.”

Centeno, 52, won 847 races in Venezuela before moving his tack stateside, where he has won 3,325. He’s a six-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion (tied with Mike Manganello for most ever), and has won the Tampa Bay Derby twice, on Ring Weekend in 2014 and Musket Man in 2009.

Centeno won today’s fourth race on 7-year-old gelding Great Faces, owned by Patrick Mogauro, Jr., and James Mogauro and trained by John Rigattieri. The victory moved him into fifth place by himself in the standings with 21 winners and cemented the honor as Boot Barn Jockey of the Month.

The increased competition provided this season by such talented newcomers as Kevin Gomez, Charlie Marquez, Mychel Sanchez and apprentice Gabriel Maldonado is a boon to all of the track’s riders, horsemen and fans, Centeno said.

“It’s good for the track, it’s good for the business and it’s good for the races,” he said. “When you have more competition, it’s better for everybody.”

Centeno carries himself with a high level of professionalism, ever aware that his performance affects the livelihood of his owners and trainers. On racing days, he often spends close to an hour in the “hot box” (taking a break about halfway through the session), dropping a pound or two to keep from going into a race overweight.

“Sometimes you can exercise and get sweaty, but the weather hasn’t helped with that too much,” he said.

Last year, Centeno and another past Oldsmar riding champion, Willie Martinez, were among five nominees for the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which goes to a rider who has demonstrated high standards of personal and professional conduct on and off the racetrack.

Javier Castellano won in a vote of riders across North America, but just being mentioned in that company was humbling for Centeno. That kind of respect from his fellow riders can’t be purchased.

“I’ve been here for many years, and a lot of the guys here are like a family,” he said, referring not only to some of his peers but the track’s valets and others who work in the jockeys’ room. “Everybody here really gets along well.”

Centeno knows the time will come, perhaps sooner rather than later, when he hangs up his tack. He and his wife Brooke, the daughter of trainer Richard Sillaman and a chiropractic physician’s assistant, are raising a 2 ½-year-old daughter Sophia, as well as Centeno’s older daughter, 15-year-old Jazmyn. A son, Danny, is 24 and works as a bartender, online marketer and model.

But for now, Centeno is pushing aside thoughts of becoming a family man with possibly too much time on his hands.

“Brooke wants me to stay home, but she knows that I love riding. I’m healthy and I’m fit and my business is going well,” he said.

“In this business it’s hard to say how long you can go, but hopefully I can have a few more years and then see what happens.”

Around the oval. Jose Batista rode two winners for the second consecutive performance. In the third race, Batista and his mount, 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Bear Hunt, were elevated to first place upon the disqualification of Motskari. Roger Laurin owned and trained Bear Hunt, who was claimed from the race for $16,000 by trainer Renaldo Richards for new owner Paula S. Capestro.

Batista added the seventh race on Golden Juan, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Hector R. Gonzalez and trained by Juan Carlos Avila.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and 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.







Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Daniel Centeno

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