by Mike Henry

Veteran rider Dean Butler, who earned career victory No. 2,000 last April at Tampa Bay Downs, has been named the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.

After a slow start to the 2016-2017 meeting, Butler has been as hot as any jockey at the track the last three weeks, with nine victories from 42 starters (21.4 percent). Included in that run was a Feb. 18 victory on 5-year-old gelding Impromptu, the horse Butler reached his milestone on toward the end of last season.

Impromptu was one of four recent winners for Butler trained by Bernell Rhone, who has used Butler on the majority of his horses at Tampa Bay Downs, Canterbury Park in Minnesota and other tracks for more than 10 years. Butler has also won races recently for trainers Alison Hassig, Robert A. Raymond and Eoin Harty.

“I think Dean is riding as well as he ever has,” Rhone said. “His timing is good, especially from off the pace, and he’s healthy, which always helps.

“The older a jockey gets, you know it’s just a matter of time before they break out of a slump,” Rhone said. “They’ve been through it before, so they just keep doing what they do best, hope the timing and a little luck come their way and they end up winning races, and that’s what’s happening for Dean.”

Indeed, Butler never moped or put his head down when he was scuffling along with a 7.1-percent strike rate (he is up to 11.9 percent). Butler has long stated that racing is “95 percent the horse and 5 percent the jockey,” and adds: “When the 5 percent kicks in is when the jock messes up and gets their horse beat.”

The 45-year-old Butler, who drove cross-country in 1990 to work with legendary trainer Jack Van Berg two weeks after graduating from Saratoga Central Catholic High School in New York, has learned to take the ups and downs in stride.

“I know how this business is, so I don’t worry over it. I know things are going to slow down and you hope they pick back up, which fortunately it has,” Butler said. “Every barn goes through it and every jockey goes through it. You can be on top of the world one day and on the bottom the next, and it can change fast.

“When you have a lot of experience, you don’t stress too much when you aren’t winning a lot of races,” he added. “I just get up every day, keep working and let everyone (on the backside) see my face, so they know I’m trying the best I can and getting the best out of what I have underneath me.”

Butler, who rode his first winner at Suffolk in Massachusetts in 1993, has won 10 meeting titles: five at Canterbury, four at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) and one at Atlantic City. His most prominent horse was Poor But Honest; they finished second to Cigar and Jerry Bailey in the 1995 Massachusetts Handicap and won a pair of Grade III stakes that year.

After leaving Tampa Bay Downs last season, Butler captured the Canterbury title with 82 victories while amassing a track record $1.8-million in purse earnings. He rode primarily for Rhone, Francisco Bravo and McLean Robertson at Canterbury.

One more reason Butler doesn’t get down during the down times: his passion for the sport. “It was a dream of mine to become a jockey, and not many people can say they get to live their dream,” said Butler, the father of two daughters, 10 and 5. “I love coming to work and learning something new every day, and that’s what happens when you work with horses.

“Every horse is different, like human beings, and they always teach you something.”

Around the oval. Ademar Santos rode two winners today. He captured the first race for older maidens on 4-year-old gelding Swing Hard, owned by Harry R. Hoglander and Josie Gump and trained by Bill Sienkewicz. Santos added the sixth race aboard Dizzy Gillespie, a 3-year-old colt bred and owned by Bailey Bolen and trained by Joseph Arboritanza.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:44 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is gearing up for its March 11 Festival Day program, which offers three graded stakes races and $925,000 in stakes purse money.

McCraken, the unbeaten colt who set a Tampa Bay Downs track record for a mile-and-a-sixteenth in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 11, will not take part in the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds after straining his left front ankle on Monday.

However, a large, talented field is expected, since the mile-and-a-sixteenth Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby awards “Road to the Kentucky Derby” qualifying points to the first four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 basis.

The other stakes on the Festival Day card are the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf for 3-year-old fillies; the $100,000 Challenger Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track for horses 4-years-old-and-upward; and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes at a mile on the turf for 3-year-olds.

The first 7,500 fans through the gates will receive a commemorative umbrella with paid admission. The inside lining of each umbrella is decorated with color photographs of the 2016 Festival Day stakes winners: Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin, Hillsborough Stakes winner Tepin, Florida Oaks winner Baciami Piccola and Challenger Stakes winner Adirondack King.

“Hearts Reaching Out.” Openings still remain for Monday’s golf tournament that kicks off the 25th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” celebration to benefit the Race Track Chaplaincy of America—Tampa Bay Downs Division.

The tournament, which is a four-person scramble, will be played at Cheval Golf and Athletic Club in nearby Lutz, with an 11 a.m. shotgun start. Following golf, dinner will begin at 5:30 p.m. on the first floor of the Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand.

Live and silent auctions will be conducted throughout the evening. Items to be auctioned include horse racing and sports memorabilia, signed photographs and paintings, tickets to sporting events and gift baskets.

There will also be a raffle for a Corriente saddle donated by Wayne Baize, a popular Cowboy Artist. Raffle tickets are $10 and will be available at the Chaplain’s office on the Tampa Bay Downs backside in the days leading to the event.

Cost for the tournament, dinner and auction is $100, with a $20 cost to those attending only the dinner and auction. Groups or individuals can sponsor a hole with signage at the tournament for $125. Table sponsorships for the dinner and auctions are also available, and the chaplaincy is accepting donations.

For details, call the Chaplain’s office at (813) 854-1313 or RTCA—TBD President Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870.