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Published Mar 8, 2024
by Mike Henry
Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Melissa Iorio

Despite achieving Grade III status in 2004 and being upgraded to a Grade II fixture in 2016, Saturday’s $225,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course traditionally plays second fiddle to the Grade III Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in the eyes of most Thoroughbred fans and a significant portion of the horse racing media.

The main reason is obvious: While the connections of many of the 3-year-olds in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby are competing to earn a spot in the biggest race of the year, the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4 at Churchill Downs, the majority of Hillsborough runners are just getting started on campaigns that are designed for them to arrive at far more lucrative destinations in the summer and fall.

That does not change the fact that the Hillsborough has been captured by such Eclipse Award and/or Breeders’ Cup-winning fillies as Dreaming of Anna (2008), Zagora (2012) and Hall of Fame member Tepin (2016), as well as Stephanie’s Kitten (2015), who, like Zagora, won both the Hillsborough and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in the same year.

Whether Saturday’s 26th renewal of the mile-and-an-eighth test can produce another champion is difficult to predict, but long-time followers of the turf scene believe the field is as tough as any in race history.

“It’s a small (eight horses) but select group of Grade I-winning and placed horses, and it’s probably the strongest Hillsborough I’ve seen from a depth point of view,” said trainer H. Graham Motion, who will saddle 5-year-old Grade III winner Sparkle Blue for owners Augustin Stable and Catherine Parke.

“It’s a very prestigious race, and it’s definitely a tough field,” said trainer Arnaud Delacour, whose hopes in the race rest with 4-year-old French-bred filly Elusive Princess, who won the Grade III Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Oaks last August in her first U.S. start. Junior Alvarado is her jockey.

“There are some very legit fillies in there who have been competitive at the Grade I level,” Delacour said.

Both Motion, who won the 2014 Hillsborough Stakes with Cloud Scapes, and Delacour, who finished second with Hawksmoor in 2019, say the Hillsborough arrives at a perfect spot on the calendar to launch a potential championship campaign.

“With Elusive Princess, it’s been in our plans all along to bring her back in the Hillsborough since she ran in the (Grade I) Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup” (in October at Keeneland), Delacour said. “The timing is right to try to set her up for the rest of the year.”

While Elusive Princess will be making her first start since the Queen Elizabeth II, Motion hopes running Sparkle Blue here on Feb. 3 in the Grade III Endeavour Stakes, in which she finished third, will provide an advantage. Jorge Ruiz will again be aboard.

“Our horse is going to have to step up, but hopefully it will give us a little edge running here last month because some of these horses are just getting started again,” Motion said.

Sparkle Blue’s lone graded score came in the 2022 Grade III Rubicon Valley View Stakes at Keeneland.

The Hillsborough Stakes is the ninth race on a 12-race Festival Day 44 card set to begin at 11:55 a.m. The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track, is the 11th race, with 10 3-year-olds ready to chase the winner’s share of the purse as well as the 50 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” qualifying points awarded to the winner.

Saturday’s stakes action begins with the sixth race, the Grade III, $100,000 Challenger Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track. It’s followed by the seventh, the $75,000 Columbia Stakes at a mile on the turf.

The Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf is the 10th race.

In the Hillsborough Stakes, Chad Brown, whose winners in the race include the aforementioned Zagora and Stephanie’s Kitten, will be seeking his seventh victory in the race with 5-year-old mare Marketsegmentation and 6-year-old mare Fluffy Socks.

Marketsegmentation, who is owned by Klaravich Stables and will be ridden by Jose Ortiz, won the Grade I New York Stakes last June at Belmont. The Hillsborough is her first start since a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Diana on July 15 at Saratoga.

Fluffy Socks is a multiple-Grade II winner whose best effort in a Grade I stakes was her second on Dec. 3 by a head to Brown’s Surge Capacity in the Matriarch Stakes at Del Mar (a race in which Brown sent out the first four finishers from his four entrants). Fluffy Socks is owned by her breeder, Head of Plains Partners, and will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr.

Throw in the likes of 4-year-old Ireland-bred filly Aspen Grove, who won the Grade I Fasig-Tipton Belmont Oaks Invitational in August at Saratoga, and Grade III winner Star Fortress, a 5-year-old Ireland-bred mare, and it becomes clear the Hillsborough needn’t settle for second billing here or perhaps anywhere else Saturday.

Apprentice Iorio earns Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award. Although she knew it was probably an impossible task, apprentice jockey Melissa Iorio tried her level best Thursday to list all those whom she feels have contributed to her ongoing improvement.

“I have super people around me,” she said. “Between my agent (Danny Mellul) and (jockey) Samuel Marin, they’ve helped me tremendously. And (jockeys) Angel Rodriguez, and Angel Arroyo, Jesus Castanon, Marcos Meneses. …and Joe Bravo. … and the trainers, including Derek Ryan.

“I’m trying to think of everybody, and it’s hard because I can’t believe how blessed I’ve been to have people who care and have wanted to give me advice and teach me,” the Trenton, N.J., product said. “Whatever anybody has to say, I do my best to listen and think about how I can apply it into my riding.”

With 30 victories to her credit – including today’s on the Gerald Bennett-trained 3-year-old gelding Legendary Beast in the fifth race – since beginning her career in September of 2022 at Monmouth Park, Iorio accepts that her learning curve as a jockey is in its fledgling stage. But she is quick to emphasize she might not even be at the racetrack were it not for the lessons she’s absorbed from an 18-year-old Thoroughbred gelding named Judge Well, who switched to being a three-day eventing horse after his racing days ended in 2013.

Three-day eventing competitions consist of dressage, cross-country and show jumping. Iorio, who turns 32 later this month, competed with Judge Well for a few years before becoming a jockey and still owns him, boarding him at a nearby facility.

“I’ve had him almost five years and I’ve learned an incredible amount from him,” Iorio said. “He is my boy, my love, my everything. I truly believe he gave me the foundation that made it possible for me to transition into horse racing, because even at (18) he is still very much a Thoroughbred and still has the racetrack in him.

“All the little quirks and sensitivities, and particularities, that come with him have set me up well to handle a lot of the racehorses here. He has been a blessing in my life in more ways than I can explain.”

Iorio has been a major racing fan since Smarty Jones and Barbaro captured her heart as a young girl, and when the chance to gallop horses for trainer Tom Proctor at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala arrived during the winter of 2020-21, she jumped at it. “It didn’t matter that I was super green. He had me on five or six sets my first day, and it was amazing,” Iorio said. “Just being in those shed rows and seeing the tack laid out and the way the barns operated was so cool. I got to breeze on the turf track there, and from then I was hooked.

“When I got back to New Jersey, I had to figure out how to keep going (in racing).”

Count leading Oldsmar trainer Kathleen O’Connell among those who believe Iorio can keep going.

“For one thing, she has a good, strong work ethic. And she listens to the right people as far as trying to learn and get advice,” O’Connell said. “She has a good feel for horses and a passion for the business. To see someone who has started from scratch and worked her way up as a ‘bug’ rider is impressive.

“She knows she is going to make mistakes, and she tries to learn something every race. She looks at the form and she never thinks she has no shot going into a race. She comes into everything with the right attitude, which is huge in our business.”

Iorio showed last year she can rebound from the adversity that is part and parcel of the racing game. She broke her right fibula in a morning training accident here last March, but was able to return to competition in less than two months.

Suddenly, within the last 5-to-6 weeks, she has emerged as a threat to win races just about every time she gets on a horse.

Those 30 career winners include 13 since Jan. 31, a run of success which made her a clear-cut choice for the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award. Now, she wants to build on that.

“I’m grateful for what has happened. The best thing I can do is keep putting my best self forward,” Iorio said. “Keep the positivity flowing, keep my focus up and just stay dedicated to my work.”

Around the oval. Apprentice jockey Gabriel Maldonado, Jose Batista and Daniel Centeno each rode two winners today. Maldonado won the first race on Misterchilliwilli, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Winner Circle Stables and trained by Gregg Sacco. Misterchilliwilli was claimed from the race for $12,500 by new owner-trainer Scooter Davis.

Maldonado added the fourth race aboard First Place G, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Donald J. Hill and Charles Connolly and trained by Robert G. Smith.

Batista won the third race on Golden Juan, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Hector R. Gonzalez and trained by Juan Carlos Avila. He scored again in the eighth with Silver Style, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned and trained by Juan Arriagada.

Centeno won the sixth race on Classic Joke, a 3-year-old colt owned by Rashid’s Thoroughbred Racing and LBR Racing Stable and trained by Richard Sillaman. Centeno added the ninth and final race on the turf on Megacity, a 9-year-old gelding owned by Francis S. Vitale and trained by Darien Rodriguez.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 31 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 Melissa Iorio

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