by Mike Henry

Maria Bowersock comes from a family of Thoroughbred conditioners. Her father, Richard Bowersock, is a retired trainer, and her uncle Gary and cousin Chad train at Presque Isle Downs, Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort and Mahoning Valley Race Course.

But it wasn’t until she met her fiancé, jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., that Bowersock gave up her life as a barrel racer on the rodeo circuit to become a trainer.

“I met Ronnie eight years ago at Presque Isle and moved down (to Tampa), after I’d been an assistant racehorse trainer for five years,” said Bowersock, the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month. “I just really enjoy racing and I wanted to make a living at it, so I had to pick between the two.”

The decision might not have been as easy as it sounds, at least at first. Bowersock’s mother Jeanie still competes in barrel racing (in which horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time), and her twin sister Pamela is a barrel racer who is married to Sean Prater, a world champion saddle bronc rider.

Anyone who knows Bowersock could be sure she would devote all her energies to whichever pursuit she chose. “Our parents put a strong work ethic into us and taught us to do things the right way,” she said, referring to herself and her three sisters. “To this day, I still call my dad with questions, and my mom is the same way. They are definitely the people I rely on.”

Bowersock has trained nine winners from 43 starters at the current meeting. Her top horses are the 4-year-old filly Ballinskelligs and the 3-year-old filly Adios Cat, both of which she claimed here for owner Ralph E. Whitney, and her own 7-year-old gelding Divine Ambition, who has won twice at the meeting.

Bowersock uses Allen on the majority of her horses, and she helped him achieve a career milestone of 3,000 victories at Presque Isle Downs four years ago, sending him out on (then)-3-year-old filly Ghost Flower.

Their dissimilar personalities help them weather the inevitable downturns that are part and parcel of the sport, in which her 20.9-percent strike rate is considered outstanding.

“I’m the high-strung one and Ronnie is the easygoing one, so it kind of mixes well,” Bowersock said. “We know how to keep our business at the track separate from our home life. Don’t get me wrong, we argue sometimes about different stuff; rides or how a horse wasn’t fit enough, whatever. It happens, but we have a very good relationship and we’re together year-round (at Tampa Bay Downs and Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.).”

Bowersock knows hard work and the ability to learn from both wins and setbacks are essential to continued growth.

“If you stop learning, you don’t need to do this anymore,” she said. “I learn from everybody. I like to listen and ask questions, and I know I still have a lot to learn. When I think I know everything, then I need to quit.”

Bowersock has a 12-year-old son, Gavin, who currently lives with her parents in Ohio. “He came here last year and I cyber-schooled him, but he’s at the age when he wants to be in school. Just because I live a hectic life doesn’t mean he has to,” she said.

While she oversees much of the morning training from her stable pony, Bowersock, who will shift her stable to Presque Isle Downs next month, relies heavily on her year-round exercise rider, Michelle Dehn. “You have to have a good gallop person to be successful, and I give her a lot of credit,” Bowersock said.

Ferrer, agent enjoy experience of lifetime. Jockey Jose Ferrer has ridden more than 4,100 winners and won 26 graded stakes. As a fan of all sports, he has attended a World Series and a Super Bowl.

But nothing in his lifetime could prepare him for the experience of walking through the gates of Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning to witness his first Masters.

Tampa Bay Downs was “dark” Thursday, so Ferrer accepted an offer from Bev Hendry, the owner of Hot Scot Racing Stables, of two tickets for the first round of golf’s first major tournament of 2017. Ferrer and his agent, Steve Worsley, departed Tampa Bay Downs after Wednesday’s racing action.

After running into severe weather just across the Georgia border and hearing of a tornado warning, they stopped for the night, a good three hours from their destination. They arrived at Augusta shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, and Ferrer, a 15-handicapper, was transformed into the proverbial kid in a candy store.

“It’s like walking into Disney World. You cannot believe how big the course is, how well they maintain it and how beautiful everything is,” Ferrer said. “We were walking down the first hole and I asked Steve ‘Is this real grass?’ because it looked too perfect. I bent down and pulled up a couple of blades, just to be sure. I didn’t see a brown spot on the whole course.”

Ferrer used his program listing the tee times to map out a plan to see almost every player in the field. Worsley has a limited knowledge of golf, so Ferrer pointed out the stars to him.

“Watching on TV, it’s easy to take their ability for granted. But when you watch Rory McIlroy swing the club, it’s amazing how far back he takes it and how long his drives stay in the air,” Ferrer said. “We saw Phil (Mickelson), Jordan (Spieth), Charley Hoffman (the first-round leader), Sergio (Garcia).

“I was from here to you away from Sergio, and when he finished putting I said ‘Hey, Serg,’ and he turned around and tugged his hat.

“I had a delicious pulled pork sandwich and even though the line was real long, it took us two minutes to get our food and get back to the course. The organization and the way things are set up are unbelievable.”

Ferrer was grateful to Hendry for providing the tickets, an offer he was unable to accept last year. “I can’t thank him enough for giving me a chance to be part of the Masters. It was a dream come true for me,” he said.

In case you missed the rest of the story, Ferrer, who might have been expected to be fatigued from walking the massive, undulating fairways for six hours, returned to the Oldsmar oval to win on his first two starters today.

In the third race, he scored aboard Scarlett Del, a 6-year-old Florida-bred mare owned and trained by Pedro J. Sobarzo. Ferrer added the sixth race on the turf on Look It Linda, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Penny Lopez and Angel V. Lopez.

So if you can’t make it to Augusta this year, rest assured that coming to Tampa Bay Downs this weekend to watch Ferrer ply his trade will be well worth the price of admission.

Around the oval. Pablo Morales also rode two winners today. In the fifth race, he was aboard 6-year-old gelding Financial Freedom for owner Sabal Racing Stable and trainer Darien Rodriguez. Financial Freedom, who has won three in a row for three different trainers and with three different riders, was again claimed, this time by trainer Braulio Lopez, Jr., for new owner Manuel H. Gonzalez.

Morales also won the eighth race on the turf aboard Wild Scat Blue, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Nancy W. and Mark H. Stanley and trained by Eoin Harty. Wild Scat Blue was claimed by trainer Alnaz Ali for new owners Perry and Nancy Camodeca.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:20 p.m. Fans will also have the opportunity to enjoy world-class simulcast action, including the Grade II, $1-million Toyota Blue Grass, featuring the winners of both of the Oldsmar oval’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prep races.

The unbeaten (4-for-4) McCraken, who won the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes here on Feb. 11, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the seven-horse Blue Grass field. The second choice at 5-2 is Tapwrit, who won the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 11. Also entered is Wild Shot, who finished fourth in the Sam F. Davis and third in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

The Toyota Blue Grass is the 10th race on the Keeneland card, with a post time of 6:17 p.m. The stakes-laden program at the Lexington, Ky., track also includes the Grade III, $250,000 Commonwealth Stakes, in which 2016 Eclipse Award Champion Sprint finalist A.P. Indian, a 7-year-old gelding trained by Oldsmar conditioner Arnaud Delacour, makes his 2017 debut.

Two other Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands preps will be simulcast Saturday: the Grade II, $750,000 Wood Memorial from Aqueduct and the Grade I, $1-million Santa Anita Derby from Santa Anita.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the May 6-7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands weekend, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed, and May 3.

Otherwise, the track is open every day 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.