Winning six races from 12 starts in April might not have come as a total surprise to Tampa Bay Downs trainer George Leonard, III. But it provided a soothing balm after managing only three victories through the earlier portion of the meeting.
Regardless of his record, Leonard comes to work each day with the same enthusiasm and level-headed approach. A quarter-century of training, combined with his rich experience around horses as a youngster, has taught him the importance of accepting good times and bad in equal measure.
“You get discouraged (during a losing streak), but if you’ve been doing this for a long period of time, you know that you have good horses and you have to ride it out until things turn around,” said Leonard, the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month. “Horses go in cycles – they get to their utmost performance level, then other times they start to slip off a little bit.
“Through experience, you know it’s not anything to worry about. You just keep going and it all comes back around. It’s like a roller-coaster ride – when it’s going good, everything is great, but you have to understand the down times will come, and you have to be able to deal with both.”
Leonard will receive his plaque during Saturday’s 10-race card, which begins at 12:25 p.m. and features the simulcast of the 143rd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at 6:46 p.m. from Churchill Downs in Louisville. Four horses that competed at Tampa Bay Downs this season are entered: Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner McCraken, State of Honor (second in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and third in the Sam F. Davis) and Always Dreaming, who broke his maiden at the Oldsmar oval.
The first race at Churchill is at 10:30 a.m. and the gates at Tampa Bay Downs open at 10 a.m.
Back to Leonard, now in his third season at Tampa Bay Downs. Easily recognizable by the white Stetson Carson hat he wears around his barn and on the front side during the races, Leonard says he has always been a cowboy, and there is no place he would rather be than at the track, regardless of how his stable is trending.
“I’ve been a welder and worked on an oil rig and in a refractory plant, and I never was happy doing anything but training horses,” said the 52-year-old Leonard, who took out his trainer’s license in 1991. “I get up early seven days a week to train horses because I love it. Training horses, I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life, and if I can keep doing it and pay the bills and feed my family, I’m content.”
Leonard was 5 when he started riding his father’s Quarter horses on weekends at bush tracks in southwest Louisiana. The youngster competed in “catchweight” races, which gave horsemen the option to use any jockey they wanted, regardless of weight.
Although he won his share of races, which meant an extra $10 in his pocket, George had to retire from the saddle when he turned 13. “When it got time to start eating or ride,” he recalled, “it wasn’t a hard decision for me, because I like to eat.”
The experience also taught him that riding horses can be a dangerous way to make a living. “I had a horse step on me and cut my calf in half, I broke my ribs and I stayed in a sling one whole summer with a broken collarbone after a horse went through the rail and fell on me,” he said.
No matter – he was hooked. His father, George Leonard, Jr., worked a full-time job and needed help with his racehorses, and young George – who still calls Elton, La., home – didn’t find anything that brought him half as much fulfillment as working at the stables. His career has taken him to racetracks throughout Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania in addition to Florida, and he will be moving his stock to Churchill Downs when the current Oldsmar meeting ends.
Two victories apiece by his 3-year-old filly I. Damiana (purchased by him as a 2-year-old in Ocala for $3,500) and 6-year-old gelding Tribal Message helped Leonard earn the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month honor and led him to reflect on lessons learned from his father, who died in a single-vehicle accident in 2009.
“My father was my main mentor,” said Leonard. “The main thing he stressed was having good morals and being honest and straightforward with people. With the horses, he taught me each one is an individual. I have 14 horses with 14 different personalities, and you have to find out what each horse likes to do, what it is that makes them work and how to keep each one happy.”
Leonard’s best horses include Point Finish, who he claimed for $15,000 as a 3-year-old. He trained the son of Point Given to back-to-back stakes victories in the Claiming Crown Iron Horse Stakes at Gulfstream in 2013 and the Forego Stakes at Turfway Park in 2014. He also conditioned Kettle Corn, who became a multiple graded-stakes winner after being sold privately as a 4-year-old.
Leonard, who is engaged to Isabel Toss and has two adult sons, Angelo and Demarcus, credits his assistant, Luis Quevedo, with ensuring the operation runs smoothly. “He is responsible for a lot of my success, and we make all the decisions together,” Leonard said. “My job would be 10 times harder without him, and we’ve been together long enough that he thinks like I think.”
Around the oval. Shannon Uske and Victor Lebron each rode two winners on today’s card. In the second race, Uske piloted 3-year-old colt Invasors Wind to victory for owner George Santis and trainer Peter Gulyas. Uske added the sixth race on the turf aboard Hiram’s Mistress, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Ridenjac Racing and trained by Dennis Ward.
Lebron won the third race on first-time starter Kantharos’ Image, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Alejandro M. Reyes and trained by Alex Rendon. Lebron added the ninth race on the turf aboard Wild Poison, a 3-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Michael Lee and trained by Walter H. Woodard.
Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno will be at Parx Casino and Racing in Bensalem, Pa., on Saturday to ride 3-year-old colt Upper Room in the $100,000 Parx Derby. Upper Room is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing and trained by Arnaud Delacour. The race will be simulcast at Tampa Bay Downs at 4:32 p.m.
Centeno, who has clinched a record sixth Tampa Bay Downs riding title (tying Mike Manganello), won today’s first race on the turf on 3-year-old colt Stadium for owners Mark F. Taylor and Robert Meirs and trainer Anthony Granitz. Centeno has ridden 2,498 winners in North America to go with the 800-plus races he won in Venezuela.
In today’s fourth race on the turf, Talent and Grace, a 6-year-old mare who returned in March from a layoff of almost 32 months after being injured, won for the first time in three races since producing a colt last year by the Pleasant Acres Stallions sire, Csaba.
Ridden by Pablo Morales in the $16,000 claiming event, Talent and Grace sped to a length-and-three-quarters victory from Pom N Circumstance in 58.31 seconds for the five-furlong distance. It was the third victory in nine career starts for the daughter of Talent Search-Grandma Grace, by Rahy, who is owned by Dale and Denise Bennett’s Equiforce, Inc., and trained by Dale Bennett.
Talent and Grace’s Csaba yearling is being raised a couple of miles from the track while mom continued to earn a paycheck. “We didn’t want to get into the breeding business, and we put (Talent and Grace) back into training when we saw she still has the desire to do it,” Dale Bennett said.
Sunday is Fan Appreciation Day at Tampa Bay Downs. In addition to a 10-race card beginning at 12:35 p.m., the Oldsmar oval will offer free grandstand admission and discounts on hot dogs, soft drinks and draft beers from noon-3 p.m. Also on Sunday, Tampa Bay Downs officials will recognize the 2016-2017 season’s leading owner, trainer and jockey with trophy presentations between races.
Sunday’s action concludes the main portion of the track’s 2016-2017 meeting, which officially wraps up on June 30, the first day of the track’s two-day Summer Festival of Racing and Music.