by Mike Henry

The day-to-day nature of a jockey’s profession makes setting long-term goals tricky.

But after riding 202 winners in 2013, Fernando De La Cruz possessed a solid understanding of the determination and focus needed to get to that level.

De La Cruz, known by some as the “Pocket Rocket” because of his diminutive frame and ability to get his mount to accelerate in the late stages of a race, reached the coveted 200 milestone on Dec. 7 at Tampa Bay Downs in familiar fashion, stalking the pace before rallying for a half-length turf victory on 3-year-old filly Tempest Trickster for trainer Kathleen DeMasi.

Currently 16th in the national 2016 standings with 202 victories, the 30-year-old native of Huancavelica, Peru has been selected as the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month. He is the only jockey based at Tampa Bay Downs with at least 200 victories this year.

“I made the decision (at the beginning of the year) to work as hard as I could and try to break my record,” said De La Cruz, who has six racing days left at the Oldsmar oval to establish a new personal best. “Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and work hard every day.”

De La Cruz, who won the riding title at Indian Grand this year with 132 victories, is in fourth place in the early Tampa Bay Downs standings with seven victories, six fewer than leader and five-time Oldsmar riding champion Daniel Centeno.

De La Cruz’s success is a result of the work he puts in during training hours and on “off” days, as he develops a rapport with his mounts during morning workouts and he and his agent, Don Cespedes, spend considerable time mapping out how races are likely to be run.

There is another reason De La Cruz attracts a lot of business: The family man and father of two is as pleasant and friendly as just about anyone you’ll meet.

“Fernando has a smile that won’t quit,” said trainer Michele Boyce. “I’m waiting for the day I don’t see him without that big grin, and I think the horses pick up on that, too. I think he is a natural. He looks right on a horse, and he doesn’t need a lot of instructions.”

Last winter, while reigning Eclipse Award Champion Turf Female Tepin wowed Oldsmar fans with her turf victories in the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes and Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, De La Cruz managed to finish third in both races aboard Lovely Loyree for Boyce – first at odds of 28-1, then 90-1.

In July, De La Cruz rode the 5-year-old mare to victory in the Indiana General Assembly Distaff Stakes.

“Fernando has good hands, a good sense of timing and he seems to know right where he is in a race at all times,” Boyce said. “He doesn’t get into a lot of bad situations.”

De La Cruz has two brothers who are jockeys, Walter and Juan. Walter, who has ridden 141 winners this year, plans to move his tack from Mahoning Valley to Oaklawn next month, while Juan is primarily exercising horses here.

In what is believed to be a unique occurrence, all three won a race on a single card at Tampa Bay Downs in 2014.

For his part, Fernando – a  product of a prestigious jockey school in Peru, along with fellow Oldsmar jockey Pablo Morales, Hall of Fame member Edgar Prado and West Coast standout Rafael Bejarano – seeks to keep adding polish to what he believes is far from a finished product.

“You never finish learning in this job. Every race, you pick up something new,” he said.

“I’m always working to improve, little by little. When you are young you make a lot of mistakes, but I always watch the replays so hopefully I won’t make them again. I live for this job.”

It’s an attitude that makes it seem less like work than a blessing.

Around the oval. Everything Lovely, whose Tampa Bay Downs debut resulted in a scintillating 4 ¼-length victory on Nov. 26, has been established as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares going 5 furlongs on the turf course.

The Kathleen DeMasi-trained 4-year-old will break from the No. 5 post in a 12-horse field under jockey Jose Ferrer. The Lightning City is the eighth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:25 p.m.

Nite Delite, a California-bred 4-year-old from the barn of trainer Linda Rice, is the 4-1 second choice. She will break from the No. 6 post under jockey Albin Jimenez. Last year’s Lighting City winner Richies Sweetheart, regarded at 6-1, will break from the perhaps unfavorable No. 11 post under jockey E.T. Baird. Larry Rivelli is the trainer.

Pablo Morales and Ronnie Allen, Jr., are tied for second in the early jockey standings with eight victories apiece after each won three races on today’s card, with Morales going 3-for-3. He was aboard 3-year-old filly Construe in the second race for owner Godolphin Racing and trainer Eoin Harty. Morales went back-to-back in the third on 5-year-old gelding Bluegrass Kid for owner MCR Stable and trainer Benny Feliciano. The winner was claimed from the race by trainer John Tebbutt for new owner Charles Tebbutt.

The rider’s third triumph, and the second on the card for Harty and Godolphin, came in the seventh race with 3-year-old filly Dreamup.

Allen, a four-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion, achieved a hat trick in dramatic fashion. He captured the fifth race on first-time starter Reverse Commute, a 3-year-old gelding owned by William D. McCarty and trained by Kathleen O’Connell.

Allen added today’s featured eighth race on the grass on 4-year-old filly Emyvale Court, a homebred owned by Edward J. Sukley and trained by Tom Proctor. In the ninth on the turf, Allen made a perfectly timed late move aboard 2-year-old Florida-bred colt Muggsamatic to get the victory for owner Stonehedge and O’Connell.

Trainer Dennis Ward also sent out two winners, both on the turf course. The Ward-trained 6-year-old Black Stash, a 23-1 shot, and jockey Jose Ferrer held on to win the fourth. Mila Mullens is the owner. A 6-1 shot, K D’s Cat Bird, won the sixth for Ward and owners Doris Arterburn and Chris Kuhn. Mike Allen was the winning jockey.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule throughout December, with the exception of Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. Sundays will be added to the mix on Jan. 1.

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