by Mike Henry

After a recent victory, Wilmer Garcia stopped long enough on his walk back to the jockeys’ room to pose for pictures with fans, then playfully flexed a biceps muscle to demonstrate his hidden strength.

No one questions Garcia’s ability to guide 1,000-pound Thoroughbreds through traffic or to summon a supreme effort from his mount during a stretch battle. But as his first meeting at Tampa Bay Downs nears a conclusion, Garcia says mental strength is the area in which he has made the biggest strides.

“I’ve always been confident, but a lot of times in the past I would watch my races (on television) and always try to see the bad things, because I always thought I was doing something wrong,” said the 25-year-old Garcia, who has been named the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.

Balancing a desire to keep improving with the need to be less critical of himself might have been a struggle earlier in the meeting, especially after he raised expectations by winning the Lightning City Stakes on the turf aboard Triple Chelsea on Dec. 17, then won with only three of his next 27 starters.

But Garcia relaxed as the weeks progressed, bolstered by his proximity in the room to such accomplished riders as Jose Ferrer, who is almost always willing to share his observations.

“We’re always challenging each other, and I like that,” said Garcia, who is in ninth place in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 34 victories, including his triumph in today’s sixth race on the turf on 3-year-old gelding Prince Arlo. “It’s nice to be next to someone like (Ferrer) who can give me the benefit of his experience and whose confidence I can use as an example.

“All the jockeys teach me something different. They want to help me get better, and that’s where my confidence comes from,” Garcia added.

Garcia has ridden 11 winners since April 1, solidifying his top-10 position in the standings. He plans to switch his tack to either Monmouth Park or Delaware Park at the conclusion of the current meeting, and expects to return to Tampa Bay Downs next fall unless his continued success earns him a solid offer elsewhere.

Garcia, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Manati, Puerto Rico, won 11 races as an apprentice at Saratoga in 2012, a meteoric start to any jockey’s career. But a single-car automobile accident the following January while he was driving from New York to Penn National resulted in a hairline fracture in his neck, forcing him to return home to Manati to be nursed back to health by family.

His renewed climb up the ladder of success has been gradual, although he hinted at his promise in the 2015 Tyro Stakes at Monmouth by winning on 47-1 Expected Ruler, the longest shot in the race, for trainer Liam Benson. He tied for eighth place at Monmouth last year with 25 victories and rode 69 winners for the year, the most of his career.

“(Tampa Bay Downs) is a tough track to get business your first year, because there are a lot of riders there,” said Garcia’s agent, Richard Ancona. “But Wilmer has a great attitude and a good work ethic, and he doesn’t have any bad habits.

“He’s a good, all-around rider who gets up early to work horses, and he never misses a day. His accident slowed him down, but he wants to be a No. 1 rider and as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll get there.”

Oldsmar fans got a picture of Garcia’s determination and passion in the Lightning City Stakes, when he and (then)-3-year-old Triple Chelsea squeezed through a narrow opening between horses in the stretch to win by a neck. “I got a little nervous because my filly is kind of tiny and I thought they were going to squish me, but when I let her go she responded and was flying through the stretch,” Garcia said after the race.

As Garcia keeps discovering, just about anything is possible when you believe in yourself.

Around the oval. Leading Oldsmar jockey Daniel Centeno, who is closing in on a record sixth Tampa Bay Downs riding crown, won three races today for the second performance in a row. He captured the fourth race on the turf on Call Me Justified, a 3-year-old filly owned by Moises Jimenez and trained by Margaret Wetherington.

Centeno added the fifth race aboard Twocubanbrothersu, a 7-year-old gelding owned by John Rigattieri and Stephen J. Derany and trained by Rigattieri. The rider also won the seventh race on Cool Seas, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Michael Redmond and trained by Baltazar Galvan.

Centeno now has 96 victories, 17 more than runner-up Edwin Gonzalez. Today’s performance marked Centeno’s fourth three-victory day of the month and the 10th consecutive day he has ridden at least one winner. He has won 21 times over the last 10 racing days.

Gonzalez was taken off his mount in the ninth race after he was unseated in the eighth when his horse, 7-year-old mare Blake’s Magic, clipped heels and stumbled. Blake’s Magic was corralled by the outriders after the race. Gonzalez was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital with hip pain.

Jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., took off his mounts today because of a fractured rib incurred in Sunday’s final race when his mount broke down and Allen collided with the rail.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:50 p.m. 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.