by Mike Henry


Most Thoroughbred jockeys have spent more time in hospitals than they care to remember.

But members of the Tampa Bay Downs riding community were eager to embrace the opportunity to spread goodwill and holiday cheer to children with potentially life-limiting diseases Monday at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Jockeys Daniel Centeno, Ronnie Allen, Jr., Dean Butler, Antonio Gallardo, Pablo Morales, Keiber Coa and Janelle Campbell used their off day to visit youngsters in the hospital’s General Medical Surgical and Neurology Units.

The visit was coordinated by the Jockeys’ Guild and the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. Guild Regional Manager Heriberto Rivera, Jr.; TBD-RTCA President Sharyn Wasiluk; Tampa Bay Downs Chaplain Ruben Columna; and retired jockey Lizzy Morris, now a jockeys’ agent, also participated.

The visit was conducted by the hospital’s Public Information Officer, H. Roy Adams.

Jockeys distributed Tampa Bay Downs caps, goggles, autographed action racing photos, toy horses and coloring books featuring the track’s Miniature Horse, Mouse (along with bundles of crayons).

But it was what they took away from meeting courageous kids who manage to stay cheerful despite their illnesses that had a lasting impact.

“I came here thinking I was going to encourage them,” said Morales, “and they actually wound up encouraging me. Their strength is amazing. They’re very sick, but they don’t look sad or depressed. This was a great experience.”

Seeing the jockeys in their silks, riding breeches and boots uplifted not only the children, but their family members. “It makes you realize a lot of people don’t have the same blessings as we have,” said Centeno. “It’s hard because you don’t really know what is going on with these kids, but it’s a great feeling bringing a smile to their faces.”

Nearly every day, jockeys are at the track before dawn to work out horses, and in the afternoons they accept the risks inherent in riding 1,000-pound animals with minds of their own while competing in close quarters at high speed. It’s a thrilling, rewarding profession, but did little to steel Campbell for Monday’s experience.

“I didn’t know if I was prepared mentally,” she said. “But when you see the kids’ smiles and their excitement, it melts your heart. You realize how easy it is to take what you have for granted.”

“These kids have a different kind of courage than we do,” Gallardo said. “We might break a couple of bones falling off a horse, but you know you’re going to get better. A lot of these kids, they don’t know how long they’re going to be here.”