FLORIDA CUP DAY IN TWO WEEKS; APPRENTICE PEREZ GETS ‘THE TREATMENT’

by Mike Henry


Apprentice jockey Jorge M. Perez soaks up the attention from his compatriots after his first career victory on Gasparilla Invader in today's fourth race (below)

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The Sunshine State’s excellence in breeding and raising high-quality Thoroughbreds will be on full display April 9 at Tampa Bay Downs during the track’s 14th Florida Cup Day, which consists of six stakes races for registered Florida-bred horses worth $75,000 each.

Nominations closed today in the Racing Secretary’s office. Three races will be contested on the main dirt track and three on the turf course, with half the races exclusively for 3-year-olds, one for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward and two for older horses.

Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett has nominated 10 horses to the Florida Cup, with one, the 3-year-old gelding Bill’s Passion, nominated to both the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore Stakes and the Sophomore Turf Stakes.

Perhaps foremost among Bennett’s nominees is 4-year-old gelding Fast Flying Rumor, a top candidate for the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint, to be run at six furlongs on the main track.

Fast Flying Rumor established a Tampa Bay Downs record (dirt or turf) by earning a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in his victory in the five-furlong Turf Dash Stakes on the grass on Jan. 9 and followed that performance by winning a starter/optional claiming race on the dirt on Feb. 5 in an excellent six-furlong time of 1:09.83.

Bennett has also nominated last year’s Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint winner, 5-year-old Lake Drive South (then trained by Kathleen O’Connell). Another intriguing nominee is 4-year-old colt Catalina Red, trainer Chad Stewart’s charge which holds the Tampa Bay Downs track record of 1:21.40 for seven furlongs, set as a 2-year-old last season in the Pasco Stakes.

O’Connell has nominated eight horses to Florida Cup Day, with 3-year-old filly Crystal’s Cantata nominated to both the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies and the Sophomore Turf, where she would face males. The conditioner’s Hey Girl Hey, another filly, is nominated to both races.

Hall of Fame trainer William Mott has been a staunch supporter of the Florida Cup, and this year appears no exception. His nominees include 4-year-old filly Quality Rocks, the 2015 Grade III Florida Oaks winner here who is a candidate for the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf.

The full Florida Cup Day card consists of the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward; the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore, for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs on the main track; the Tampa Turf Classic, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-an-eighth on the grass; the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, for fillies and mares 3-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass; the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, for 3-year-old females going seven furlongs on the dirt; and the Sophomore Turf, for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass.

Old Time Hockey, Glen Hill Farm’s Grade II-winning 7-year-old gelding, has been nominated to the Tampa Turf Classic by trainer Tom Proctor. If he starts, Old Time Hockey would be seeking a third consecutive victory in the event. Old Time Hockey could face Allie’s Event, breeder-owner-trainer Lori Smock’s popular 10-year-old gelding which is riding a three-race winning streak.

Glen Hill and Proctor have also nominated the recent Grade III Florida Oaks third-place finisher, Family Meeting, to the Sophomore Turf and a possible meeting against males. Lambholm Stable and trainer Roy Lerman may try to repeat in the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf with 5-year-old mare Evidently.

Down the stretch. Jorge M. Perez, a 20-year-old apprentice jockey from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, earned his first career victory in the fourth race on 4-year-old gelding Gasparilla Invader in a driving, stretch-long duel against runner-up Tai Kai.

In this case, horse and rider both did it the hard way. The Florida-bred Gasparilla Invader won for the first time in 19 career starts, while the victory for Perez was his first from 38 mounts, including 28 tries at Camarero Race Park in Puerto Rico.

Perez came to Tampa Bay Downs two weeks ago, posting two seconds and two thirds before his breakthrough victory. Gasparilla Invader prevailed by a neck in 1:19.50 for the 6 ½-furlong distance. The winner was bred by Stella Thayer and is owned and trained by Christos Gatis.

“I was a little nervous, because I knew he had a good shot to win,” Perez said through an interpreter, fellow jockey Luis Garcia. “Then I got real excited because I looked back and nobody was coming.”

That scenario changed in a hurry, and Perez had to put Gasparilla Invader to a full-out drive to preserve the triumph.

The traditional initiation ceremony that greets every jockey after his first win took place outside the jockeys’ room, where Perez was sprayed with a water hose and had a bucket of soapy water dumped over him. Then, while his attention was distracted, fellow rider Huber Villa-Gomez poured a bucket of ice water on his head. Manoel Cruz applied the coup de grace with a can of shaving cream.

“It was a good feeling,” Perez said. “I was so excited.”

Perez said he did not become discouraged by his lengthy trial before winning. “I’m a ‘bug boy’ (apprentice), and I have a lot to learn,” he said.

Jockey Samy Camacho and trainer Margaret Wetherington teamed for two victories today. In the first race, Camacho guided 61-1 shot Key Agent to victory in a mile-and-40-yard claiming event. The 5-year-old Arkansas-bred mare is owned by Cristino Dominguez.

Camacho and Wetherington returned to the winner’s circle after the fifth race with 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding Pallium Prize, who entered the claiming contest with a single victory and nine seconds from 26 starts. He is owned by Lauren Wypszynski.

Manoel Cruz and Daniel Centeno also notched two victories in the saddle. Cruz won the seventh race aboard 8-year-old gelding Hypothetical, owned by Robert L. Tucker and Pond Scum Racing and trained by Dean Ward. Cruz also won the ninth, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, on the turf with 3-year-old colt Patrick’s Day, owned by Jerry Crawford and trained by Jordan Blair.

Centeno was victorious in the sixth race on 7-year-old gelding Darnells Spirit for owner Frank Ford and trainer Ian Hemingway. The five-time Tampa Bay Downs jockey champ also won the 11th on the turf on 6-year-old ridgling Rico Suave for owners Averill Racing and CCF Racing Stable and trainer Gerald Bennett.

Tampa Bay Downs is closed Sunday (The Downs Golf Practice Facility will be open from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.). Thoroughbred racing resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m.

Wednesday’s first race will honor retired Tampa Bay Downs valet Eddie Maribona, a native of Camaguey, Cuba who worked in the Tampa Bay Downs jockeys’ room for almost 40 years before retiring at the conclusion of the 2014-2015 meeting.

Valets are akin to professional sports clubhouse attendants; they lay out their riders’ silks and breeches, polish their boots and saddles and equip their headgear with helmet covers and goggles.

The 82-year-old Maribona rode briefly at Oriental Park in the Havana suburb of Marianao before the Cuban Revolution hastened his emigration to the United States. Known as the “King of the Fairs” on the New England circuit in the 1960s and early 1970s, he competed at Tampa Bay Downs (known then as Sunshine Park and, later, Florida Downs) before a succession of injuries forced his retirement from the saddle.

Beginning Monday, Tampa Bay Downs will be 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, while conducting racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.