Racing News

FIVE OLDSMAR JOCKEYS SEEK GRADED GLORY; CENTENO JOCKEY OF MONTH

by Mike Henry

Ronnie Allen, Jr., remembers going against his instincts more than 20 years ago in a stakes race at Arlington Park, with near-disastrous results. “The trainer said it might be better if I used the whip less, so I didn’t hit the horse down the stretch and ended up dead-heating (for first place),” recalled Allen, who was about 28 or 29 at the time.

“Sometimes it screws you up when you do something different instead of just riding your race like you have been for years. I think my horse would have won (outright) if I hadn’t been thinking about what the trainer told me.”

Allen, who is set to ride Old Time Hockey in Saturday’s 30th renewal of the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf, and four other Tampa Bay Downs-based jockeys – Daniel Centeno, Antonio Gallardo, Fernando De La Cruz and Huber Villa-Gomez – have been named to compete in graded stakes on the Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card, which begins with a first-race post time of 12:15 p.m.

No bettor hit the Pick-5 today, creating a carryover pool of $17,413.21 into Saturday’s card.

While many racing fans would assume the local riding contingent would be subject to bouts of severe stage fright entering the starting gate against such world-class jockeys as John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Edgar Prado, Julien Leparoux and Jose Lezcano, Allen and his Oldsmar compatriots agree they have ridden enough races to avoid a case of nerves – even with $550,000 in graded-stakes purse money on the line.

“I’ve ridden against those guys a lot, so it really doesn’t bother me,” said Allen, who finished second by a head to Lochte and Paco Lopez in last year’s Tampa Bay Stakes, with 6-5 favorite Sky Flight and Leparoux a neck back in third.

“Maybe when I was younger, I would be more excited riding against guys like Pat Day and Angel Cordero, but now I treat it is any other ride,” said Allen, a four-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey. “I figure those guys aren’t better than me, they just might have a better horse. And they are coming to my home turf. They don’t know the track as well, and I think that’s an advantage for me.”

Allen has ridden more than 3,300 winners in his career, but is looking for his first graded-stakes victory in the Tampa Bay Stakes. He won both the Tampa Bay Derby and Sam F. Davis Stakes on Marco Bay in 1993, before the races were awarded graded status, and rode also-ran Sport Jet in the Grade I Preakness in 1985.

The Tom Proctor-trained 7-year-old gelding Old Time Hockey is 8-1 on the morning line for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Stakes, which has attracted a field of 12. The Tampa Bay Stakes is the 10th on the card.

Centeno, who has won five Oldsmar riding titles, is slated to ride Pasco Stakes winner Morning Fire in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds. Trained by Keith Nations, Morning Fire is 4-1 on the morning line in the seven-horse field, with the Todd Pletcher-trained Gettysburg and three-time Eclipse Award Champion Jockey Castellano the 5-2 favorite.

The Sam F. Davis is the fifth race on the card. Centeno is also named to ride 5-year-old gelding Special Envoy for trainer Arnaud Delacour in the Tampa Bay Stakes.

Centeno has won four career graded stakes, including the 2009 Tampa Bay Derby on Musket Man when it was a Grade III contest and the 2014 Tampa Bay Derby on Ring Weekend as a Grade II.

“I’ve been riding with those guys (the south Florida contingent) for a while, and it is a pleasure and an honor to ride with them. I’ve learned a lot from them, too,” Centeno said. “When I was getting started I’d feel a little nervous against them, but I learned that when you load in the gate, you have to forget everything else.

“Every jockey is different, but the best thing is to treat it like one more race and don’t put it in your head that it is a big race,” Centeno said.

Often, that is easier said than done. Put yourself, for a moment, in the boots of De La Cruz, who will be aboard 5-year-old mare Lovely Loyree for trainer Michele Boyce in the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf and will ride 6-year-old gelding Spark Kit for trainer Gerald Aschinger in the Tampa Bay Stakes.

In the Lambholm South Endeavour, Lovely Loyree and De La Cruz will load first in the No. 1 post, directly inside Partisan Politics and Hall of Fame jockey Velazquez. Spark Kit is No. 9 in the Tampa Bay Stakes and will be directly outside Take the Stand, ridden by another Hall of Fame member – De La Cruz’s Peruvian countryman, Prado.

“I feel excited riding with those guys. That is the competitive part of this sport,” De La Cruz said. “I won’t be thinking about who I’m next to in the gate. My job is to try to follow my trainer’s instructions and try the best I can for my horse.”

Some might wonder if De La Cruz and his Oldsmar brethren are trying to mask their true emotions, but they have all competed against the likes of Velazquez, Prado and Castellano at various times. Before establishing his tack at Tampa Bay Downs a few years ago, Gallardo rode on a daily basis for three years against the top south Florida jockeys at the fall-early winter Tropical at Calder meeting and at Gulfstream Park.

Gallardo, who has won back-to-back Tampa Bay Downs riding titles and is favored to take his third this season, has two mounts Saturday for trainer Mark Casse: 5-year-old mare Lexie Lou in the Lambholm South Endeavour and 6-year-old horse Sky Captain in the Tampa Bay Stakes.

“Nothing good comes from being nervous,” said Gallardo, who like Allen and De La Cruz is seeking his first graded-stakes victory. “Saturday is a big day, and when you have this kind of opportunity, you have to be sure you do a good job.

“You have to have a good game plan, and you have to have more than one plan. Some races you break good and others not so good, or you might think there is a lot of speed in a race and everyone else thinks the same way and takes back,” Gallardo said. “You have to be open mentally to see how the race develops and adjust to what happens.”

To a man, the Tampa Bay Downs contingent welcomes the chance to ride against the best because it is usually easier to anticipate what they are likely to do, despite being difficult to counter.

“Those guys might put you on the inside, but they aren’t going to put you in a bad spot,” Gallardo said.

Another Tampa Bay Downs jockey from Peru, Huber Villa-Gomez, is named to ride No More Chillin for trainer Ron G. Potts in the Sam F. Davis. Villa-Gomez also finds it easier mentally to approach a major race knowing the amazing consistency with which the top jockeys perform.

“You don’t have to worry about anything with those kind of riders,” said Villa-Gomez. “Everybody knows where everyone else is during the race, and they know how much horse they have.”

But the 40-year-old journeyman, who scored his lone graded-stakes triumph last year at Woodbine on Cactus Kris in the Grade III Ontario Fashion Stakes, said it is “natural” to experience nerves before a major race, especially against the best of the best.

“It’s like if you’re cage-fighting and you see this big guy inside the cage – you’re thinking, this guy is going to beat me up,” Villa-Gomez said. “But it’s not how big you are, it’s how the horses are doing that day. You might be on a long shot, but you still have a shot.”

A shot is all they can ask for. Out-of-town jockeys won all six of the graded stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last year, but history isn’t always the best guide for forecasting such races – even though it must always be considered.

Manoel Cruz rode two winners on today’s card. He was aboard 7-year-old gelding Royal Fighter in the third race for owner Lady Luck Stable and trainer Christos Gatis and added the 10th and final race aboard 7-year-old mare Brewmistress for owners Sharon and Gordon W. Bredeson and Pete Mattson and trainer Karen Yanez.

Centeno earns Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of Month honor. A deep thigh bruise prevented jockey Daniel Centeno from playing in a backstretch tournament softball game last week, but he is hopeful of returning to the diamond soon.

The 44-year-old Venezuela native was kicked in his right leg by a horse in the Tampa Bay Downs paddock before the eighth race on Jan. 30, resulting in a trip to the hospital. “I got lucky,” said Centeno, who has been selected as the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month. “The X-rays came back fine, so I went home and used ice and hot water on it all night.

“It still bothered me a little the next morning, but I love my job. I called my agent, Kevin Witte, and told him I could ride, so let’s try. It worked out good.”

Indeed it did. In the first race the following day, Centeno delivered a textbook performance on the Barbara McBride-trained 7-year-old mare Chelsie’s Chapel, getting through along the rail on the turn and surging to victory.

When he dismounted in the winner’s circle, it was clear his thigh still bothered him, as he landed awkwardly before gaining his balance. But Centeno says the injury has not affected his riding, and it is difficult to argue that point in light of his 10 victories over the last six racing days, including three-victory hat tricks on Saturday and Wednesday.

Now in third place in the Oldsmar standings with 36 victories, Centeno got off to a slow start when the 2015-2016 meeting resumed Nov. 28. Part of that was attributable to riding slower horses, but he also faced one of the biggest personal challenges of his life when his fiancée Ashley George suffered a stroke on Nov. 1 and went into a coma.

The 32-year-old George, who was born with Cystic fibrosis, had undergone a successful double lung transplant in July. The day after her stroke, she had surgery to relieve pressure on her brain, and she remained in a coma for more than a month.

Forced to balance the demands of his job with caring for the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Jazmyn, Centeno struggled to keep on an even emotional keel. George awoke the first week of December, but remains hospitalized in Rochester, N.Y., where she is undergoing rehabilitative therapy.

“She is in therapy every day and is doing a lot better, but she is still having trouble with her vision and her memory,” Centeno said Wednesday, a few minutes after riding three consecutive winners on the card. “The doctors say her long-term memory is going to come back to 90 or 95 percent of what it was, but they don’t know how long it will take.

“She is in good hands now with her grandmother, her sister and her best friend being with her, and we hope she can get back with us soon. Jazmyn and I call her a couple of times a week, which seems right. Jazmyn is doing so well in school and I don’t want her to be sad like she was before,” he said.

Centeno’s 16-year-old son Daniel Jr., who lives in Temple City, Calif., visited him during the Christmas holiday.

A two-time winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (with Musket Man in 2009, as a Grade III race, and on Ring Weekend in 2014 as a Grade II event), Centeno has won stakes this season on Hidden Treat in the Sandpiper and Morning Fire in the Pasco.

He has mounts in three of Saturday’s four stakes. In addition to Morning Fire and Special Envoy, he rides 3-year-old filly Looking At Beauty for owner-trainer Chad Stewart in the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes.

Those who know Centeno and George are pulling hard for her recovery, and for her to be reunited with her family. “It is going to be a long process, so I need to keep working and try to keep my mind clear and take care of my daughter,” Centeno said. “Ashley is in really good hands, and that takes some of the pressure off. It is still hard, but I have to keep going, try to keep my body fit and keep riding and winning.”

Prado back in the saddle, ready for Saturday. Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado said he is feeling “super” physically and mentally in his return to action after suffering six broken ribs on Dec. 13 at Gulfstream Park when his mount bolted to the outside fence and dumped him before jumping a temporary outside rail. The horse was uninjured.

Prado finished second Wednesday in his first race back on 3-year-old War Order in the eighth race for trainer H. Graham Motion. The 48-year-old rider was seventh on Discreet Contest, again for Motion, in today’s sixth race on the turf.

Prado is named to ride Rafting for Motion in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes and Take the Stand for trainer William Mott in the Tampa Bay Stakes.

“Everything is back on track again,” said Prado, whose career total of 6,874 victories includes the 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Barbaro, a pair of Belmont Stakes victories and last year’s TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Runhappy. “I appreciate Graham Motion giving me this opportunity to ride these two horses” (before Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South).

Live It Up Challenge. Saturday marks the start of the “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, which offers a grand prize of $1,000 and a seat at the 2017 National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

There is no entry fee. The contest runs through Florida Cup Day, which is April 9. Online registration for the contest is underway and can be accessed on the track website at www.tampabaydowns.com

Each player will be able to select one of two challenge races each day and place a mythical $2 win-place-show wager on their selection for that race. Players begin the contest with one free lifeline. Additional lifelines will be available for purchase throughout the course of the contest by anyone whose selection finishes out of the money or who misses a day, for whatever reason.

For a complete set of rules and information, visit https://www.liveitupchallenge.com on the Internet.

Chaplaincy benefit golf tournament set. The Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) – Tampa Bay Downs Division will host its 24th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” golf tournament and fundraiser on March 7 to support the continued work of the chaplaincy. The tournament, which has a four-person scramble format, will begin at 11 a.m. at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar.

A dinner, awards ceremony and auction will be held beneath the pavilion tent at Tampa Bay Downs afterward, with the dinner getting underway at 5 p.m. The cost is $100 for the tournament, dinner and auction, $20 to attend the dinner and auction only.

Donors are asked to support the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA in any of the following ways:

  • As a volunteer;
  • By sponsoring a golf hole for $125;
  • By playing in the tournament;
  • By attending the dinner and purchasing an item in the live and/or silent auction;
  • By donating money or an auction item.

For details or to reserve a spot in the tournament, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 854-1313.