by Mike Henry

Winning is the name of the racing game, but you couldn’t blame jockey Daniel Centeno for still feeling upbeat about a pair of runner-up finishes Saturday in graded stakes at Aqueduct.

The five-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion, who went 3-for-4 today in his return to the Oldsmar oval, was second aboard 4-year-old colt Divining Rod in the Grade I, $500,000 Cigar Mile Handicap and second on 2-year-old colt No Dozing in the Grade II, $300,000 Remsen Stakes.

Both horses are owned by the Lael Stables of Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trained by Arnaud Delacour.

“I was really, really happy because both of my horses ran big and the owners and trainer were very happy,” said Centeno, who missed notching his first career Grade I victory in the Cigar Mile by a short head against 3-year-old Connect and jockey Javier Castellano.

The two horses staged a thrilling stretch duel, and Centeno said he had no reason to second-guess his performance nor that of Divining Rod, who was outfitted with blinkers.

“The blinkers really helped him focus, and he improved a lot,” Centeno said a few minutes after winning today’s third race on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course on 3-year-old filly More Than Kisses for owners Lawana L. and Robert E. Low and trainer Jonathan Thomas in the rider’s first race of the current Oldsmar meeting.

“For a couple of seconds, I thought my horse was going to win. He didn’t want to get beat, and he fought all the way. We thought (3-year-old Connect) was the horse to beat, and I tried everything I could. When I switched my stick to the left, my horse came out a little and I bumped Javier, and he tried to push me in a little. We were fighting all the way to the wire, and it was a tough beat,” he said. Divining Rod was five lengths ahead of third-place finisher Realm.

Divining Rod is familiar to Tampa Bay Downs followers, having finished second in the 2015 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and third in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. He later won the Grade III Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland before finishing third in the Xpressbet.com Preakness, won by American Pharoah, as well as the Grade II Indiana Derby.

Centeno rode the colt to back-to-back victories at Parx Racing in September in allowance/optional claiming events.

Centeno and No Dozing staged a determined rally in the Remsen, a mile-and-an-eighth race that can often indicate a juvenile’s ability to stretch out in distance, but were unable to put a dent in the final two-and-a-half-length margin by winner Mo Town and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

No Dozing finished three-and-a-half lengths ahead of the betting favorite, Takaful. The runner-up earned four Road to the Kentucky Derby “prep season” qualifying points.

“When Johnny hit his horse in the stretch, he re-broke and he was gone,” Centeno said. “(No Dozing) was running all the way and closed strong and I think he is going to be a nice horse.” Indeed, he had finished fourth in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, with Joe Bravo aboard, to the subsequent Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Classic Empire.

Centeno admitted to surprise at being summoned to New York by Delacour, who uses him frequently at Tampa Bay Downs. “He called my agent Kevin (Witte), and I didn’t even have to think about it. I’m glad they gave me the opportunity and happy everything worked out as well as it did,” Centeno said.

But he is excited to be back at Tampa Bay Downs, and not only because he rode three winners today. “I love Tampa. This is home for me,” said Centeno, who lives with the apple of his eye, his 8-year-old daughter, Jazmyn.

And although it is far too early to predict another track title, he expects to have a solid meeting. “I’m just going to try to win as many races as I can, try hard for everybody and stay safe and healthy,” he said.

And make sure Witte stays close to the telephone.

Around the oval. In addition to his victory aboard More Than Kisses, Centeno won the sixth and seventh races back-to-back for trainer Gerald Bennett. They teamed to win the sixth with 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Bootsontheground, owned by Winning Stables and Ray Rech, and the seventh on the turf with Be Nice Or Leave, a 5-year-old mare owned by Juan Cacho Castro.

Fellow veteran Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode two winners. He captured the second race on 6-year-old Florida-bred mare Spanish Concert for owner James L. Chicklo and trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Allen also won the fifth on the turf on Arabian Queen, a 4-year-old filly owned and trained by Justin Johns.

Conditioner Jonathan Thomas sent out two winners. After saddling More Than Kisses, he won the eighth race with 3-year-old colt Big Papi, owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Angel Cruz was the jockey.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with an eight-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. Friday is also the deadline to register for the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” online handicapping contest. There is no charge to enter, and first prize is $1,000 and second prize is $500. The contest runs through Dec. 23.

Saturday is Cotillion Festival Day, with the spotlight on 2-year-olds and the first stakes races of the new meeting: the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes for juvenile males and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for juvenile fillies. Both races are contested at the six-furlong distance.

Saturday’s festivities begin with “Breakfast at the Downs” from 8-10 a.m. under the Picnic Pavilion Tent. Attendees can watch workouts, hobnob with horsemen and meet the Paddock Preview Host, Andrew Demsky. Included in the $8 cost is free Grandstand admission and a Tampa Bay Downs racing program.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.