MORALES EMERGES FROM DOLDRUMS, WINS JOCKEY OF MONTH AWARD

by Mike Henry

About the only time jockeys at Tampa Bay Downs want to come in last is after they win a race, when the winner’s-circle presentation and an extended chat with the trainer delays their return to their dressing quarters.

Pablo Morales hasn’t been making that joyful, carefree stroll to the room with as much frequency this meeting, but that trend has started to turn around in recent weeks. With six victories since March 6, the 27-year-old native of Lima, Peru is a clear-cut choice as the Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month.

Morales has climbed to a tie for 12th place in the overall standings with 16 victories. It’s a far cry from three seasons ago, when he was putting the finishing touches on a third consecutive riding title at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., but Morales – who has ridden 1,192 career winners after piloting 4-year-old gelding Awesome Prizes to victory in today’s eighth race – hasn’t lost faith in his ability.

“I know I’m young, but I’ve been riding since I was 15,” said Morales, who won the Grade II Super Derby on The Daddy in 2005, just after turning 17. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down, and I know what that’s like. You don’t get used to it, but you have to get yourself out of that spot.”

His business took a hit early in the meeting when his agent left unexpectedly, and it took time for Morales to regain momentum after hooking up with Joe Paulley, who also books mounts for Victor Lebron.

“I’ve stayed hungry. I kept working out at home, trying to stay as strong as I can, because I needed to be in top condition when my chance came,” Morales said. “I run when I’m home and I watch TVG 24/7. I felt like a bug boy (apprentice) trying to start again, like I had never won before.

“I love making a difference in a race,” Morales added. “I love making a horse finish. If he is lacking a little bit of strength, I want to be able to transfer my strength to help my horse win.”

Morales and his wife, Erin, have two children: Sophia, 5, and Camilo, 3. His father, Pedro Morales, is a retired jockey and trainer, and Erin’s father, Eduardo Rojas, is a trainer. Morales the younger considers all the family backing invaluable to his success.

“My dad has always been one of my biggest fans, and he tells me ‘I know you have plenty of talent. Be patient, pray to God and keep working.’ My wife is very supportive and my kids are amazing, super-good kids, so I have a lot to fight for.”

Morales is striving to keep his current momentum rolling into Presque Isle Downs, where he has been runner-up in the standings the last two seasons to Antonio Gallardo.

“I know I can make myself competitive, whenever I’m on the stock,” Morales said. “I keep proving myself every day, and when you start winning a little more, more people start noticing and everything falls into place and you start getting on better and better horses.

“I just have to keep reminding everybody I’m a good rider, because it’s not what you did yesterday, it’s what you can do tomorrow.”

Down the stretch. Students of pedigree had to enjoy today’s third race, when 3-year-old colt Z Ponti rallied in deep stretch for a neck victory from Wolf Rock in a $32-$30,000 maiden claiming race at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.

Z Ponti is a member of the first crop from sire Gio Ponti, which finished second by a nose to Karelian in the 2010 Tampa Bay Stakes in his only race at the Oldsmar oval. Gio Ponti was the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Older Horse and Champion Grass Horse, a title he successfully defended that season, but could not get past a stubborn Karelian in one of the most exciting finishes in recent Tampa Bay Downs history.

Out of the Distorted Humor mare Blageuse, Z Ponti is owned by Zayat Stables and trained by John P. Terranova, II. Daniel Centeno was the jockey. Z Ponti paid $16 to win after getting the distance in 1:43.69.

Centeno rode two winners on today’s card, both on the turf. He also won the seventh race aboard 4-year-old gelding Towpath for owner Lael Stables and trainer Arnaud Delacour.

In addition to its 11-race card Saturday, Tampa Bay Downs will simulcast the last three races of the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline from Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates. The races available for wagering are the $6-million Dubai Turf Sponsored by DP World; the $6-million Dubai Sheema Classic Presented by Longines; and the $10-million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline.

There are 12 horses entered in the Dubai World Cup, headed by 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness winner California Chrome. Victor Espinoza will ride the past Horse of the Year.

The first of the three races available for wagering, the Dubai Turf Sponsored by DP World, has a post time of 7:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time).

Thoroughbred racing resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs conducts racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the exception of Easter Sunday, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, Tampa Bay Downs 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.

The golf range will be open on Easter from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; the last bucket of dimpled eggs will be sold at 3:30 p.m.