Forever young (left to right): Scott Spieth, Jose Ferrer and Ronnie Allen, Jr., prove there is life -- and a lot of winning -- after 50. (Courtesy SV Photography)
In a sport dominated by statistics, Tampa Bay Downs’ three winningest jockeys ignore one number that leaves no room for interpretation: their age.
When Scott Spieth turned 50 on Oct. 25, he joined 52-year-old riders Jose Ferrer and Ronnie Allen, Jr., in the half-century club. A generation or two back, that might have been a signal to athletes to join a recreational softball team, but the Oldsmar trio shows no signs of slowing.
“I feel better now than I did 20 years ago,” said Ferrer, who is tied for 10th in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 15 victories after finishing third last summer at Monmouth Park with 66 winners. “I ran around some then, didn’t always get enough sleep and I never worked out, which contributed to my body being a little tired, but 20 years ago I could overcome that.
“I can’t overcome that now, so I go to bed early and get up early and do everything right,” added Ferrer, who works out every day with his wife Steffi in the garage they’ve converted into a mini-gym. He restricts his diet to mostly all-natural foods and enjoys riding his bike on off-days.
“I strap my boys (Derek, 2 ½, and Joseph, 1) on a cart and take them to the park, three miles there and three miles back,” said Ferrer, who collected career victory No. 4,000 in February of 2016 at Tampa Bay Downs aboard Rocket Bottle.
While few jockeys half his age can match Ferrer’s regimen (his bulging biceps are widely admired on the Oldsmar backside), Spieth and Allen also believe they are as strong and fit as most of the jockeys half their age.
“I get on my five or so horses in the morning and ride races every afternoon, I play golf and a lot of sports and I’m always on the go,” Spieth said. “And I maintain a good diet, so I don’t have to reduce (weight) as hard as a lot of riders.”
“I ride the same as I did 20 years ago,” said Allen, who is in contention for a fifth Tampa Bay Downs riding title with 47 victories, 12 behind Daniel Centeno. “I work a lot of horses in the morning and stay fit that way, and riding a lot of races keeps me strong, too.
“I feel like I’m still in my 20s.”
Their fellow over-50 jockeys, Jorge Vargas and Jesse Garcia, have ridden a handful of horses during the current meeting, and Sue Martin made headlines in January when she won a race here as a 62-year-old great-grandmother aboard 25-1 shot Blue Haze of Fire. Both Mike Allen, Ronnie’s younger brother, and Gary Boulanger turn 50 later this year.
For now, though, it is Ferrer, Spieth and Allen who are carrying the banner for bettors who value experience and know-how above the promise of youthful exuberance.
Many observers consider jockeys the best athletes in any sport, pound for pound. The demands of guiding a headstrong, half-ton Thoroughbred from starting gate to finish line can push a rider to the brink of total exhaustion. But there is no substitute for the strength of character that allows these three to shrug off the blows the sport can dish out.
“The biggest part of this game is your mental toughness,” said Spieth, who endured the longest slump of his career earlier this meeting, when he won one race from more than 100 starters.
“I won’t say that wasn’t frustrating, but did it have me doubting my ability or questioning the way I rode? Not at all,” Spieth said. “You always ask yourself if you could have done something differently when you don’t win, but I didn’t find myself doing that any more than normal. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I missed a winner there.’
“I’m not saying I’m the greatest rider, but I know I’m good at what I do. So, who do I have to prove that to? No one,” said Spieth, who was seventh at Delaware Park last year with 43 victories. “Faith and perseverance, and faith is No. 1. That’s the best description of what it takes to keep going.”
It’s worth mentioning that had Spieth’s early-meeting woes not occurred, his career win percentage would stand at 16.10, not its current 16.05 level. That minute difference attests to his longevity and the fact that his 4,565 victories, 44th all-time and 21st among active jockeys, have been accompanied by a lot of losses, like any jockey who’s been plying his trade for decades.
“This business is like a roller coaster,” said Allen, who has 3,477 victories and plans to return in May to Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he finished fifth last year with 57 victories. “When things start going the other way, you have to keep trying and keep doing what you know works, just like before. You can’t get depressed or want to give up.
“You just have to keep a good attitude, because things are eventually going to turn around.”
Ferrer, whose 4,098 victories put him 65th on the all-time list, is a top proponent of the power of positive thinking. He rarely encounters a frown without trying to flip it around, and he views each day as a God-given opportunity to contribute to a sport that has given him so much.
“God blessed me with this talent, so I want to bless everybody else,” said Ferrer, a native of Santurce, Puerto Rico who shares his insights and expertise with many of the younger Hispanic riders who populate the Oldsmar jockey colony. “I think it’s human nature to want to do that. The more you bless somebody else, the more God is going to bless you back.”
That philosophy is a continuation of the assistance Ferrer received on his way up from two all-time greats, Angel Cordero, Jr., and Jorge Velasquez, as well as his own uncle, Carlos Lopez, Sr., and a cousin, Charles “C.C.” Lopez, both successful riders.
“I also had an agent coming up, Jose Morales, who was a great mentor and taught me how to be a gentleman and a good person and to stay humble,” Ferrer said. “That’s why I tell a lot of the younger riders to try to do the best they can and just be themselves. You can’t accomplish anything without a good horse, I don’t care what anyone says.”
According to Steffi Ferrer, it is an inner passion to excel that keeps her husband from thinking about retirement.
“Being a jockey is not a job for him,” said Steffi, who met Jose almost four years ago when he was riding and she was a hotwalker at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. “His motivation to keep going strong comes from his love of the sport and his desire to take care of his family.”
Allen and Spieth are both engaged to trainers on the Tampa Bay Downs backside, both of whom marvel at the energy and enthusiasm their jockeys bring to their profession.
“He doesn’t even think about (retirement),” said Allen’s fiancée, Maria Bowersock. “As long as he stays healthy and can keep winning races, he wants to keep going. I’m fortunate because he rides most of my horses, but trainers know they are going to get 110 percent effort from Ronnie no matter what horse he’s riding.”
Aldana Gonzalez, Spieth’s fiancée, cherishes the joy he gets from competing. “He is always happy to get on horses,” she said. “And he really likes to encourage the young riders and suggest how they should handle certain situations.”
As much as they love race-riding, Allen, Ferrer and Spieth eventually will face the question that confronts any athlete: what comes next? While Ferrer has expressed interest in being a steward and Spieth talks about being a jockey’s agent, Allen insists he hasn’t given the matter much thought. He rode in all 10 races Saturday, almost as if dedication itself can stave off the inevitable.
“Back when I was 25, I didn’t think I’d still be riding now. When you’re young and dumb like that, you don’t think that far in the future,” Allen said. “I can’t believe I’m still doing it and I’m still as healthy and strong as I am.
“I guess it’s in the genes, because my dad just turned 74 and is still training horses and my uncle is 76 or 77 and working as a valet in the jockeys’ room. And my brother Mike is almost 50 and he’s looking good, too. It’s the adrenaline, the excitement, and the money is good. But the main thing is that it’s in our blood.”
Growing up in Michigan, the Allen brothers rode bales of hay when they were 5 or 6, pretending they were riders driving their mounts to the wire. “Jockeys were our heroes,” Allen recalled. “I don’t think we really knew what we wanted to do with our lives, but we were pretty small compared to most kids our age, so we just stuck with the horses and kept our weight down and eventually started riding.”
Allen was the undisputed “boy king” at Tampa Bay Downs 30 years ago, clinching his first title in 1985 before his 21st birthday. He did not ride from 2003-2007 because of personal reasons, but his career seemed to come full circle when he captured another Oldsmar crown six years ago.
And he kept going, because why would you leave when you’re on top of your game? When the next win is a race away, you’re pretty sure you’re on the right path.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a $5,000 race or a $50,000 race, it’s still exciting to win. That’s what we’re here for,” Allen said. “When we’re riding a horse for somebody, we’re a team, working the horses in the morning, working with the trainer to get them ready.
“It’s hard to keep everybody happy. All we can do is try hard and make as much money as we can for everybody.”
Spieth got to ride for a bit more than $50,000 last November at Santa Anita when Ron Paolucci of co-owner Loooch Racing Stables asked him to ride War Story in the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic. By finishing eighth (a long ways behind Arrogate and California Chrome), they earned $60,000 and more scrapbook clippings for Spieth (not that he spends much time pasting them in).
“It was fun just being a part of it and being in the room with the other guys riding the race,” Spieth said. “But was it a defining moment (of his career)? No, not really. I think I’ll have more good opportunities in the future.
“I mean, it was great to be a part of that race, but it isn’t something I’d say will never happen again.”
And on he goes. “I love what I do. The day it becomes actual ‘work,’ that’s when it will be time to say that’s it,” Spieth said.
Who knows when that day will come. Does it really have to?
“I’ve been blessed to have two more angels,” said Ferrer, referring to his sons, “so maybe if I stick around a little longer, they can see me ride. That’s one of the things I would like to accomplish.”
It seems foolish to bet against him.