Tied at the top: apprentice jockeys Luis Figueroa and Janelle Campbell
Competing for the leading apprentice jockey title wasn’t high on the priority lists of Janelle Campbell and Luis Figueroa at the outset of the 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs meeting.
“I came down here hoping to win three races, because I know how tough it is here,” said Campbell. “I’ve done a lot better than I expected.”
While Amesbury, Mass., product Campbell has been surrounded throughout the meet by a circle of friends from the New England area, Figueroa struggled at first to fit in.
The 19-year-old from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico – who attended a jockeys’ school there before starting his career at Camarero Race Track, where he won 19 races – has limited English-speaking skills, making it difficult to communicate with the horsemen he seeks to influence to get on good horses.
But day by day, Figueroa is overcoming those obstacles. And when he won Friday’s eighth race on 32-1 shot Take a Powder with an impressive late surge along the rail, he moved into a 12-12 tie with Campbell atop the track’s apprentice jockey standings with four days remaining in the meeting.
Attitude counts for a lot, of course, and in that regard, both are also running neck and neck. “Luis always shows up on time and does exactly what you tell him to do,” said Oldsmar trainer Victor Carrasco, Jr. “He’s a hard-working kid, and he has the potential to have a good career.”
“When Janelle comes by my barn and the horses see her, they’re happy,” said trainer Alejandro Reyes. “She’s a wonderful lady who is smart and has guts, and the horses run under her. I have horses that showed nothing in their previous races who try with her.”
As apprentice jockeys, Campbell and Figueroa receive a 7-pound weight allowance on each of their mounts. The flip side of the coin is that apprentices are inexperienced, prone to making mistakes their veteran cohorts barely remember making.
Although the top apprentice chase is fun for fans and their supporters, both Campbell and Figueroa have more pressing matters in mind – like making arrangements for their next assignments after the final weekend of the current meeting on Saturday and Sunday.
With Suffolk Downs, where she has spent the past four summers, unlikely to open for more than a few days, Campbell is moving her tack to Delaware Park.
In Figueroa’s case, both Carrasco and the rider’s agent, Carlos Garcia, suggested he go to Delaware – where he would be able to travel between several mid-Atlantic and Northeast tracks that are open during the summer – but Figueroa says he may opt for Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, which has a larger contingent of Spanish-speaking horsemen and jockeys.
The 30-year-old Campbell’s experience and her relationship with jockey Luis Alejandro Garcia make change easier to handle. “I know a lot of people from here who are going to Delaware, and people from home (Massachusetts), too,” she said. “So my business is going to grow, which is exciting.”
Figueroa’s father, Luis Figueroa, Sr., left his job as a truck driver to join Luis on the backside a month into the current season, going to work as a hotwalker for Carrasco to help his son’s adjustment. But he is prepared now to let him go out on his own.
“I’m proud of what he’s done, and I know he can do well wherever he goes because he is focused on his job,” the elder Figueroa said through an interpreter.
Garcia, a former trainer with more than 1,300 winners, has also seen vast improvement from Figueroa on the track. “He was very raw when he got here,” Garcia said. “He didn’t have a lot of strength, and he wasn’t great at switching sticks (changing the whip between hands). He also worried a lot, but I told him when he started winning, people will start liking him and using him more.
“He’s gotten a lot better, and he’s not afraid to work. He’s getting on four or five horses every morning for Joan Scott and some other good trainers,” Garcia said. “The big thing is he is willing to work, and he is willing to learn.”
Campbell, who rode an impressive string of long shots earlier in the meeting, has also shown vast progress and the ability to “improve” horses by out-thinking her rivals.
“The biggest improvement I’ve seen in Janelle is she is riding her races smarter, knowing where to sit early in a race and how to be patient,” said her agent, Phil Wasiluk. “If something happens early in a race that she isn’t expecting, she doesn’t panic. She is able to adjust and make the best of the situation.”
The final round is about to begin. Combatants, to your corners, in a manner of speaking.
“I’m happy for him, and he’s happy for me,” Campbell said of the race for top apprentice. “I think we are both happy people who love what we do, and people at the track see that.”
Also on Friday’s card, House of Usher ignored the Raven quothing “Nevermore” to win the fourth race in his first race as an 11-year-old. House of Usher now is 21-for-101 lifetime, and first-place money boosted his career earnings to $$336,723 – hardly a candidate for the Poe house.
House of Usher was ridden by Mike Allen. The gelding is owned by James L. Hogue and trained by Robert G. Smith.
Leading jockey Antonio Gallardo, Dean Butler and Mike Allen each rode two winners. Gallardo has 133 winners, within range of Daniel Centeno’s single-season track record of 144.
Gallardo won the second race on 3-year-old colt Bandages for breeder-owner World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., and trainer Chad Stewart. He added the sixth race on 3-year-old gelding Big Awesome for owners Holli Day, Dennis Holman and Kathleen O’Connell and trainer O’Connell.
Butler captured the third race on 5-year-old gelding Kraftig, owned by Russell Rhone and trained by Bernell Rhone. Butler also won the ninth and final race on the turf on 7-year-old mare She Drives Me Wild for owners Suzie and Pete Loparnos Stable & Racing, LLC and trainer Lonnie Arterburn.
Allen won the fourth race on the aforementioned House of Usher and also triumphed in the seventh on 7-year-old gelding More Zen Tea for owner Ridenjac Racing and trainer Dennis Ward.
Tampa Bay Downs presents a 10-race card Saturday beginning at 12:40 p.m. There is a Super High-5 carryover pool of $10,911.55.
Next Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2, the Oldsmar oval will open the gates at 10 a.m. to simulcast the entire cards from Churchill Downs, site of the May 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Programs for the May 1 Kentucky Oaks card will be available at 3 p.m. on Thursday. The following day, some Tampa Bay Downs betting windows will open 15 minutes before the first race at Churchill Downs, scheduled for 10:30 a.m.
Also on May 1, advance wagering on the May 2 Kentucky Derby card will begin at noon. Programs for the Derby card will be available at 3 p.m. the previous day.
The approximate post time for the Kentucky Derby on May 2 is 6:24 p.m.
On May 2, mint juleps will be on sale for $9 each in official Kentucky Derby souvenir glasses, while supplies last. Souvenir glasses ($6) and other Kentucky Derby gift items will be on sale throughout the day in the Gift Shop on the first floor of the grandstand.
Thoroughbred racing will be held at Tampa Bay Downs May 1-3; the Thoroughbreds then will return to the Oldsmar oval June 30-July 1 for the third annual, two-day Summer Festival of Racing.
Sunday, May 3 is Fan Appreciation Day, with hot dogs, fountain sodas and domestic draft beers on sale for $1 each from noon-3 p.m.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and Three Card Poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.