by Mike Henry

Rosemary Homeister, Jr., sat cross-legged on the floor of the women’s jockey quarters at Tampa Bay Downs, studying past performance charts while being interviewed following her selection as Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.

The question-and-answer session was winding down when a joyful bundle of energy bounded into the room. Homeister gave up all appearances of multitasking, smothering her 3 ½-year-old daughter Victoria Rose with kisses and admiring her new dress.

Just as her own mother – current south Florida trainer and former jockey Rosemary Homeister, Sr. – blazed a path for her to follow, Victoria Rose’s mom wants the youngster to regard life as a series of limitless opportunities for happiness and achievement.

“The joy of my life and the love of my life is Victoria Rose, and that’s why I want to be the best I can be,” Homeister said. “I want to show her that mommy can do everything – and that women can do anything they put their minds to.”

Homeister has forged a career doing just that since earning an Eclipse Award in 1992 as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey. With 2,726 victories, she trails only Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone (3,704) among women riders.

Homeister has won meeting titles at Calder, Hialeah and Colonial in Virginia, and was second-leading jockey twice at Tampa Bay Downs. She became the fifth woman jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby when she rode Supah Blitz in the 2003 Run for the Roses.

With more than 100 stakes victories, including four Grade II stakes triumphs, Homeister has been at her best when the stakes were highest. She just missed winning the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Santa Anita, finishing second by a nose on 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight.

After a slow start to the current Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Homeister and former agent Steve Elzey decided to reunite.

Elzey has handled bookings for such top riders as Rafael Bejarano, Willie Martinez, Jesus Castanon and David Gall, and he and Homeister felt like they had unfinished business to tend to. They were a team during the 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, when Homeister stopped riding to prepare for the birth of Victoria Rose.

“It took a little time for things to start picking up, but now we’re on a roll,” said Homeister, who has climbed to fifth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 19 victories after winning today’s third race on 3-year-old colt Distinctivelygreat, a first-time starter, for breeder-owner Peggy J. Follin and trainer Kathleen O’Connell.

“Steve Elzey is one of the best agents in the country. He and I talk about my business in the mornings and after the races, and I like that because I welcome good, constructive criticism. It makes me a better rider and it helps me to think smarter and correct any mistakes I’m making out there,” Homeister said.

Elzey’s contribution to Homeister’s success is hard to quantify, but he’s not in it for the accolades. He is rejuvenated working with the polished veteran, whose outgoing personality and ability to connect with owners, trainers and fans make her one of racing’s best ambassadors.

“She is just a sweetheart of a person and about as accomplished a rider as there is in the country,” Elzey said. “I’ve never seen anyone give more of their time to the fans. I’ve seen her go from the winner’s circle back to the paddock and stop for three pictures on the way.

“You can’t win every day. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to go through ups and downs in this business all the time,” Elzey said. “But I’m fortunate to know everyone, and we get along good. Rosemary and I seem to bring out the best in each other. And I can tell her just about anything, and like it or not, she listens.”

On Jan. 31 – Festival Preview Day – Homeister enjoyed a day to remember. She kicked things off by winning the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes on the main track on 3-year-old filly Include Betty, rallying from almost 20 lengths behind to reel in Huasca and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez by a neck.

Include Betty, who is owned by Brereton C. Jones and Timothy C. Thornton and trained by Tom Proctor, paid $39.80 to win.

In the next race, the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf, Homeister dodged early trouble and guided lightly raced 4-year-old filly Lots o’ Lex – the only entrant that had never competed in a stakes – to a clear lead against some of the top turf distaffers in training.

The 76-1 shot settled for a third-place finish, and her connections – including Homeister, owner Lisa Lex and trainer Gerry Aschinger – are optimistic of bringing her back in the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on Festival Day, March 7.

For good measure that day, Homeister won the 12th and final race, a one-mile turf allowance, on 4-year-old filly Stock Yard Hen for owner Romar LLC and trainer Wayne Mogge.

Homeister’s level of preparation for her race assignments hasn’t changed much since she was an apprentice. “I like to get on my horses in the mornings and get a feel for them, get to know what their quirks are,” she said.

“There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes just getting a horse to a race. We don’t just come out here and jump on a horse,” said Homeister, who worked Include Betty and rode her in her maiden triumph four weeks before the Suncoast.

 “Include Betty is a little bitty filly, and she has a specific way she wants to run. She is also really playful, slinging her head around, and you kind of have to leave her alone. She is the kind of horse where you have to get to know her, and she has to get to know you,” Homeister said.

Homeister’s dedicated approach to studying the running styles of her mounts and finding out what works best makes Elzey’s job easier.

“She likes to work. She likes doing homework, and does it well,” Elzey said. “There might be races where we maybe aren’t on the best horse, but she’s going to try to find some way to win.

“You couldn’t ride any better than she is riding right now,” he added.

Perhaps the biggest factor in Homeister’s long-term success is her ability to put the photo-finish loss or the occasional bad ride behind her. “This is a mentally and physically stressful business, and if you don’t learn how to control that and stay positive, it can just tear you apart,” she said.

“As soon as I hit that wire, I thank God for making it around safe. The most important thing is safety, then winning the race. … but then you have to be able to control your emotions and control your mind. And you have to be a smart rider, because you have to be able to control your horse and know when to move and when not to move.”

Homeister probably had more to offer on the subject, but Victoria Rose had arrived with a smile to light up any heart.

The end of the interview, and Homeister’s study of race charts, could wait.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. There will be no turf racing. 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.

Hearts Reaching Out. It’s not too early to begin planning for the annual Race Track Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division’s “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, Dinner and Charity Auction, scheduled for Monday, March 2.

The gala event kicks off the track’s Festival Week, which culminates Saturday, March 7 with an unprecedented stakes program featuring the 35th running of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf and the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf.

The golf tournament, dinner and charity auction are open to the public. The cost is $100 for the entire day’s activities, $20 for dinner and auction only. The tournament is a four-person scramble beginning at 11 a.m. at East Lake Woodlands Country Club.

The dinner and auction begin at 5:30 p.m. under the big tent in the Picnic Pavilion Area. Auction items will include racing and sports memorabilia, autographed collectibles, paintings, racing equipment and other valuable treasures.

The tournament is a major fund-raiser for the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA, which describes its mission statement as “dedicated to providing, with excellence, for the spiritual, emotional, physical and social/educational needs of horse racing’s workforce.”

For details or to reserve a spot in the tournament, call Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870.