His father and uncle were both jockeys who became trainers, so it was natural Pablo Morales thought about riding Thoroughbreds from an early age in his hometown of Lima, Peru.
About 18 years ago, after he and his mother traveled to Gulfstream Park while visiting Pablo’s sister Gloria in Miami, he made up his mind that nothing would stop him from joining the fraternity of race-riders – and that if his talent allowed, he would come to the United States to follow his calling.
“It was always normal for me to go to the racetrack growing up, but the desire to be a jockey didn’t really hit me until I went to Gulfstream and saw the crowds and the great riders,” said the 26-year-old Morales, the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month.
“I had my picture taken with guys like Jerry Bailey and Pat Day, and right then I knew I wanted to ride with them one day.”
Morales has ridden nine of his 21 winners at the 2014-2015 Oldsmar meeting since Feb. 1, moving into a sixth-place tie in the standings with Victor Lebron. Several of his recent victories have come for trainer John Terranova, II.
“It seems to be a good combination,” Terranova said today from New York, where he is preparing multiple graded stakes-winner El Kabeir for the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 7. “Pablo is a very capable rider who has real good hands on a horse and can get them settled on the front end. I also use him to breeze some of my horses in the morning, and he is provides good, solid feedback after a workout or a race.
“(On Feb. 14), he rode (4-year-old filly) Harp N Halo going six furlongs, and they got knocked around coming out of the gate. He let her get her feet under her and get settled, and she won going away,” Terranova said. “That’s a good thing about him – he doesn’t rush into a bad decision if things don’t go his way in a race.”
With his boyish face and diminutive (even for a jockey) build, Morales won’t be mistaken for a grizzled veteran any time soon. But he has accumulated a wealth of experience. He has ridden 1,076 career winners and was the leading jockey at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., three years in a row before finishing second last summer to Antonio Gallardo.
Grizzled might not be the best word, then, but he is certainly seasoned. When he turned 12, Morales had his father sign an insurance waiver allowing him to gallop racehorses at the Hipodromo de Monterrico in Lima.
“I only weighed about 70 pounds, and if you look at pictures of me wearing my vest and helmet, I look like I’m 5,” Morales said, laughing.
He hadn’t changed much in appearance by the time he won on his first mount at the racetrack in Arequipa at 15. Morales won three times in two days, reaffirming his belief he could compete successfully at U.S. tracks.
Fittingly, he won his first race in North America at Gulfstream, where he had first dared to dream, in the winter of 2005 at age 16 on the colt Alena’s Boy. Finishing second in that race was a horse ridden by Jorge Chavez of Peru, whom Morales had idolized as a youngster.
“It was a little nerve-wracking (winning at Gulfstream) – to be honest, it was crazy,” Morales said. “Everything was like a huge rush. But it was like a dream come true.”
Later that year, less than a month after turning 17, he won the Grade II, $750,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on The Daddy for owner Greg Norman and trainer Salvador Gonzalez. “Believe it or not, I didn’t get to celebrate that one,” Morales recalled recently.
“I didn’t know anybody there, so I went back to the hotel room and ordered room service. Besides, I had to fly to New York really early the next morning. I wouldn’t change anything, though. The happiness it gave me was all I needed.”
Today, his inner contentment originates with his family: wife Erin and their children, daughter Sophia, 4, and son Camilo, 2.
“When responsibility hits, it is a blessing, not a hindrance, and having kids and a family has helped me to think so much clearer and further ahead,” he said. “I want to show my wife I’m good and make my family proud, and that makes me want to try to do even better.”
Morales shares the same agent as Tampa Bay Downs’ leading rider Antonio Gallardo in former jockey Mike Moran, and it might have been easy to become discouraged earlier in the meeting when Gallardo was riding winners in bunches and Morales was struggling to land mounts.
But Morales has learned that the best substitute for introspective fretting is getting up early every morning and going to work.
“You want people to want you,” he said. “But all I can do is try to prove myself every day. As soon as trainers started putting me on better horses, I started climbing in the standings. When a race is competitive and the horses are only a few lengths apart, I feel that I can beat anybody.”
De La Cruz scores hat trick. Another jockey from Peru, 28-year-old Fernando De La Cruz, rode three winners on today’s card, solidifying his hold on third place in the standings with 33 victories.
De La Cruz won the second race aboard 4-year-old gelding Bennie Y Benny for owner Amaty Racing Stables and trainer Sandino R. Hernandez, Jr. He went back-to-back in the third race on the turf on 4-year-old filly Miss Melinda for owner Fager Stable and trainer William Mott.
He completed his sterling afternoon in the sixth race, a $25,500 allowance/$62,500 optional claiming contest on the turf. De La Cruz piloted 6-year-old gelding Rerun home first for breeder-owner World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., and trainer Chad Stewart.
Ricardo Feliciano rode two winners today. In the fifth race, he tallied on 7-year-old gelding Jersey Blue Giant for owner MCR Stable, Inc., and his father Benny R. Feliciano. He added the seventh on 6-year-old gelding Long to Win for owners Rolf Obrecht and Richard Estvanko and trainer Anthony J. Granitz.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. There is a Super High-5 carryover pool of $11,379.16.
The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.