For jockey Rosemary Homeister, Jr., the storybook ending to her first day of racing at Tampa Bay Downs since the 2011-2012 meeting came several minutes after her 3-year-old colt On the River’s gutsy half-length victory from Haywired in today’s ninth race.
While victories on the racetrack never become old hat – even when you’ve passed the 2,700 mark, like Homeister – it’s the personal moments that endure.
Those came when her 3-year-old daughter, Victoria Rose, gave her a purple rose and an embrace in the winner’s circle. And on her walk back to the jockeys’ room, when fans and friends old and new in the sun-kissed crowd of 4,095 offered high-fives, posed for photographs and reached across the rail for a welcome-back hug.
“It’s great to have my daughter here today with family friends to watch Mommy do what she can do and win a race,” said Homeister, a two-time runner-up in the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings who spent the last two winters at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
“I never knew how much I missed this track until I got back here. Oaklawn is beautiful and the money was great, but to come back to Tampa, it just feels like family. Just walking back after that win, everybody made me feel so good. That’s what I’ve missed the most about being here – these fans,” Homeister added.
Homeister finished second with her only other mount, Our Lucky Lady, in the second race.
On the River’s victory in the six-furlong, allowance/optional claiming event was one of two on the day for trainer David Hinsley, who also won the first race with 2-year-old colt Hashtag Giddy Up.
On the River collared Haywired at the sixteenth pole and gradually pulled away under urging from his veteran pilot.
“It probably helped to have the No. 12 post, actually,” said Homeister, the 1992 Eclipse Award winner as Leading Apprentice Jockey in North America. “He has speed, but he doesn’t have to be in front. That gave me an opportunity to make him wait and be the presser, and I didn’t have to ask him until the quarter pole.”
While Homeister’s victory provided the exclamation point to an exciting return of Thoroughbred racing as the 2014-2015 meeting resumed at the Oldsmar oval, there was no shortage of high points to the afternoon, including Hinsley’s double. After winning the first race, he reflected back nostalgically to his first training victory 25 years ago – with the first horse he ever saddled.
“Yeah, I thought this game was going to be easy,” he joked, more than 600 victories later.
Jockey Brian Pedroza, only 23, had a pretty memorable day, too. He won the first race for Hinsley on Hashtag Giddy Up, then a few hours later watched his father, Martin Pedroza, win the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in New York on Private Zone.
The action was somewhat calmer elsewhere. A minute before post time for today’s seventh race, Joan Scott relaxed on a bench on the grandstand apron clutching the Lambholm South Race of the Week blanket her 4-year-old filly Indygo F M A had earned a race earlier.
Fellow trainer Maylene Conkey, meanwhile, was doing her best to keep her nerves in check; her 4-year-old gelding Twocubanbrothersu was about to load into the gate for his first start in almost 12 weeks.
Like the majority of men and women who train horses at Tampa Bay Downs, Scott and Conkey are barely acquainted with the concept of a day off. No matter. Both have a nearly lifelong love affair with horses, and bringing them south every year – in Scott’s case, from Kentucky, and for Conkey, from New England – is enough of a vacation to keep them stimulated and excited about their chosen profession.
“The racing is great, all the people here are nice and my horses are pretty competitive,” said Conkey, who won seven races for her primary client, Johnny Sou’s May May Stable, last season in her first full meeting at Tampa Bay Downs. “I enjoy the variety of distances they run here, and I absolutely love the turf course. I’m going to do well here again.”
As if to back her up, Twocubanbrothersu finished second in the seventh race at odds of 10-1, yielding grudgingly by a half-length to fellow 10-1 shot Omegatron in a six-and-a-half furlong main track claiming event.
Like Conkey, who brought her horses to the nearby Innfields Training Center for early preparations before Tampa Bay Downs opened for training, Scott and her equine entourage arrived almost a full month before today’s resumption of the meeting.
As a result, Indygo F M A was able to get in three solid workouts before her seasonal debut. Scott – 12-for-51 here last season – was able to bring her to a razor’s edge of sharpness, and it paid off with a two-and-a-quarter length victory from favorite Da Mi Basia Mille at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf under five-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno.
“Maybe she likes Tampa as much as I do,” Scott said of the Kentucky-bred owned by Roger McDaniel. “She had run in some tough spots at Keeneland and Woodbine, and this was just as ideal spot for her. And I think she has blossomed and improved down here. She is a filly who wants to be a bit nervous, but if you watched her in the paddock and the post parade, she was so relaxed. I think that is a huge benefit,” Scott added.
Conkey, who has trained on her own eight years after working as an assistant in Massachusetts under the late Joe Gilbert and Carlos Figueroa, has found the environment ideal for her horses to unwind after demanding spring and summer campaigns.
“I work hard at the barn, but there is a lot more to this than the training part,” she said. “It’s how you get along with your horses. You have to make them happy if you want them to perform their best.”
Scott seemed in no hurry to leave her comfortable track-side perch, like many in the festive crowd savoring the return of racing and warm sunshine.
“It’s awesome to see this much support for racing,” Scott said. “And I’m seeing a lot of kids having the time of their life. That’s what I like to see. Get them reeled in.”
As if confirming the opinion this is the deepest jockey colony in the history of Tampa Bay Downs, a different rider won each of the 10 races. The biggest surprise came in the fifth, when newcomer Alexis X. Batista guided 5-year-old mare Ms Bloomfield High to victory for trainer Jackie Acksel. Ms Bloomfield High paid $70.60 to win.
Racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a first-race post time of 12:40 p.m. Wednesday also marks the debut of the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” online handicapping contest, which is free of charge.
Participants must register by 12:15 p.m. on the first day of competition, which is Wednesday, Dec. 3. The “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” runs through Dec. 21. The grand prize is $1,000, second place is worth $300 and third place is worth $100. There are 10 $100 daily prizes.
To register and for full rules, visit www.festivuschallenge.com on the Internet.
Saturday’s “Cut the Cash” raffle to benefit Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc. (TROT) produced a jackpot of $1,359, half to TROT and half to the winning ticket holder. The winning ticket number was 643389S.
TROT is dedicated to the safe retirement from racing, rehabilitation, retraining and re-homing of Tampa’s racing Thoroughbreds.
Tampa Bay Downs will conduct racing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays before adding Sunday to the mix on Dec. 21.
The track is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.