Racing News

RED-HOT DE LA CRUZ EARNS HILTON GARDEN INN JOCKEY OF MONTH HONOR

by Mike Henry

As a student at the Jorge Bernardini Yori Jockey School in Lima, Peru a dozen years ago, Fernando De La Cruz looked forward to occasional visits from his countrymen Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano, who were already established in the United States.

Both were generous with their time and advice, and De La Cruz felt like a graduate student in their company. Besides treasuring tips on technique and style, he absorbed their insights on dealing with horsemen and the public and the need to stay in peak physical condition.

“I never thought I was going to come here then,” said the 29-year-old De La Cruz, the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month after winning 19 races since Jan. 1. “But I saw how (Prado) focuses on his job and rides hard in every race, and I learned how they both communicate with owners and trainers and are polite with everyone. I think you can always learn something from those kind of jockeys.”

While Prado is already in the sport’s Hall of Fame with more than 6,800 victories, including the 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and two Belmont Stakes, and Bejarano’s 3,500-plus victory total includes five Breeders’ Cup races, De La Cruz has steadily climbed the ranks to become one of the top handful of jockeys at both Tampa Bay Downs and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville, Ind.

Currently second to Antonio Gallardo in the Oldsmar standings with 29 victories, De La Cruz finished third last season and fourth two years ago. He won the Indiana Grand title two years ago with 130 winners, and finished second last year with 97 winners.

De La Cruz, who rode his first winner at the Hipodromo de Monterrico in Lima in 2006, has won almost 1,400 races, including 202 in 2013 when his mounts earned more than $3.6-million. One of eight children, he has two siblings riding in the United States: his older brother Juan, who is at Charles Town in West Virginia, and younger brother Walter, riding at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

All three rode winners on a single Tampa Bay Downs card on Feb. 21, 2014, a feat that may be unprecedented in Thoroughbred racing annals.

“I feel blessed to be in this position,” said Fernando, who usually comes across as happy-go-lucky but has a fierce work ethic. “Being in this country has opened up opportunities I probably would never get in Peru. And I feel happy that my brothers are getting the same chance. This is my home now.”

De La Cruz and his wife Rosa have two children: Brian, 5, and Norma, who turns 3 on Feb. 4. Rosa and the kids live in Greenfield, Ind., where Brian attends kindergarten, and the youngster calls his father every morning before school to keep him up to date.

“This is their first winter staying there because of Brian’s school. It isn’t easy not being together,” said De La Cruz, who adds that Brian is getting a little tired of the Hoosier State winter weather. He is thinking about moving the clan south next year. For now, he lives with his agent, Don Cespedes, and the two often stay up late watching replays and discussing the following day’s mounts.

De La Cruz’s average win mutuel payoff this month is $14, including scores on horses that paid $48.60, $34.40 and $31.80. His 19 January victories, including today’s tally in the seventh race on Rhiana’s Candy, have come for 14 different outfits.

He has ridden four winners at the meeting for trainer Ray Trisler, who has used De La Cruz on his horses since he was an apprentice in 2007.

Trisler and his wife Linda are Norma’s godparents. “Fernando is such an outgoing, friendly person, and Rosa is just a peach,” said Trisler. “Our relationship has developed through racing and the kind of people that they are.”

Trisler credits De La Cruz’s natural strength, his decision-making during races and his dedication for his rise through the ranks. “I think he probably works as hard at his craft as anybody,” Trisler said. “And he is very smart during a race. Things don’t always unfold the way you expect them to, and he is able to adjust. He has a lot of strength in his arms and hands, and horses respond to him. I think he probably works as hard at his craft as anybody, and it pays off.”

For De La Cruz, who takes Rosa and the kids home to Huancavelica each November after the Indiana Grand meeting to visit his parents, siblings and extended family, the extra effort is more than worth it.

“You always have to pay attention in this job and keep trying to improve,” he said. “I learn something new every day. You are never finished learning.”

Down the stretch. Veteran jockey Jose Ferrer rode two winners today, raising his career total to 3,998, which includes six officially credited victories at Camarero Race Track in Puerto Rico.

 Ferrer won the first race on 6-year-old mare Tax Breaker for owner Norris Scott and trainer Barbara McBride. He overcame a poor start in the sixth race to win on 4-year-old gelding Rambam for owner Hot Scot Racing Stables and trainer Dennis Ward.

In today’s featured race, the $28,000 Minaret Prep for fillies and mares going six furlongs, No Fault of Mine and jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., took advantage of an early speed duel to roll to a five-and-three-quarter length victory from Sky Gold. The wagering favorite, Milam, was third in the allowance/optional claiming event.

No Fault of Mine, which finished second as a 2-year-old in the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs, was making her first start since a sixth-place finish Nov. 26 in the Grade II, mile-and-an-eighth Falls City Handicap at Churchill. She is owned by her breeder, Lothenbach Stables, and trained by Chris Block. Her time was 1:11.60.

The $50,000, six-furlong Minaret Stakes is Feb. 20.

Allen also won the fifth race today on first-time starter J S Sundance Uno, a 3-year-old filly owned by Janis K. Maitlen and trained by Gerald Bennett.

The owner-trainer-jockey combination of Jagger, Inc., Jamie Ness and Antonio Gallardo collected two victories. They won the second race with 4-year-old filly Pom Pom Pistol and the 10th and final race with 4-year-old filly Lox.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. 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.