CRUZ’S ROAD TO TRAINING SUCCESS DOTTED WITH INFLUENTIAL MENTORS

by Mike Henry

Like a lot of kids who grew up on the racetrack, Jesus “Jesse” Cruz hoped to become a jockey. But long after he outgrew that king-sized dream, he continued to forge relationships with horses.

When a homebred named Help a Brother arrived in the barn of his stepfather, Lewis Craig, Jr., at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in 2012, 18-year-old Jesse felt like he’d been handed the keys to a Mercedes.

Help a Brother was one of the best horses to come out of West Virginia, where he made all 49 of his career starts (39 at Charles Town and 10 at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort). He won 15 times, including two editions of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Onion Juice Breeders Classic Stakes, while earning almost $400,000.

 “You develop a real connection with horses that you gallop,” says Cruz, 28, in his first season training at Tampa Bay Downs. “I got on Help a Brother every day my junior and senior year before school, and he was like my best friend.

“I got to be really close to that horse. You learn their quirks when you gallop them, who they are, and you get to watch them grow up. You get to sense what they’re thinking. You can almost feel the light bulb go on when they realize ‘Oh, we’re not just horses. We’re racehorses.’ ”

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Trainer Jesse Cruz and his assistant and girlfriend, Grace Smith, with their 4-year-old filly Shecanflatoutplay, owned by Wasabi Ventures Stables

Cruz, who took out his trainer’s license in 2017, has made a splash at the Oldsmar oval, with four victories, two seconds and two thirds from 14 starts. Training primarily for the Wasabi Ventures Stables of TK Kuegler and his wife Michele, Cruz has also been active at the claims box, with eight acquired, all for Wasabi Ventures Stables.

His fast start at Tampa Bay Downs comes on the heels of a strong meet at Monmouth Park, where he won seven races from 23 starts.

“I see a lot of promise in Jesse,” said TK Kuegler, a venture capitalist with strings of horses at Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn Park, Delta Downs and Penn National. “I wanted a young trainer who is hands-on, honest and hard-working, and that is Jesse in a nutshell.”

At Tampa Bay Downs, Cruz and his assistant and girlfriend, Grace Smith, oversee his 18-horse barn. A former assistant to trainer Douglas Nunn, Smith has an extensive background as an equestrian, having shown horses up and down the East Coast from age 10, competed as a collegian and given lessons to youth equestrians.

Smith exhibits the same passion shown by Cruz and the Kueglers for racing. “My first day working for Doug Nunn, I showed up at the barn at 4 a.m. and by 5 a.m., I was hooked,” she said. “There is always something going on, always something to do. I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to do this forever.’ ”

“Grace has been a lifesaver for me,” Cruz said. “She does so many things I used to do – running the feed cart, giving horses medication, helping the vets treat our horses. She rides the pony with every set in the morning. To be successful at this is a 24/7 kind of job, 365 days a year, and you have to put the horses first. For Grace to understand that and be a part of it – and be able to deal with me – is a big reason our relationship works.”

“Wanting to come to work every day, that’s a big thing that draws us together,” Smith said. “We’re excited to get to the barn, and being able to do this together is special. I think Jesse is old-school in his ways and his training, and we both care about the horses first and foremost.”

Cruz is quick to credit the numerous influences that have made him one of the Oldsmar oval’s most promising young trainers. None had a greater impact than his mother, Daisy Tobin, who was an assistant to legendary West Virginia trainer James Casey for 26 years before she “retired” in 2016 (Tobin still helps her husband, Lewis Craig, Jr., at his barn).

Jesse and his older sister, Elizabeth, spent much of their childhood at Casey’s barn after Tobin and their biological father, jockey Alejandro Cruz, split up (Jesse really doesn’t remember Alejandro Cruz, considering Craig as his dad). As a single mom, Tobin worked long hours to support her children, getting along day by day.

At different stages of his youth, Tobin would have bet big money against Jesse following her to the racetrack. “I remember when he was 7, before I had met Lewis. Jesse didn’t want to get out of the car one morning and help feed the horses because it was raining,” Tobin said. “He said ‘That’s not my job, it’s yours.’ I told him, ‘Well, I’m putting food on the table for you guys, and this has got to be taken care of.’ I think he realized then what he had said and why it was important,” Tobin said.

As teenagers, Jesse and Elizabeth helped around Casey’s barn to earn money to go to the beach, but Tobin still didn’t see the spark her son needed to make a living with horses. That changed in 2008, when Casey began training a West Virginia-bred gelding named Russell Road for owner Mark E. Russell.

Russell Road competed through nine seasons, going 31-for-62 with 22 stakes victories and $2-million-plus in earnings. With each major accomplishment, Jesse’s eyes opened wider – not just to the horse’s excellence, but to his mother’s role in his career.

“Really, up until then, I would rather be playing baseball or football or wrestling than be around the barn,” Cruz recalled. “Then Russell Road won six or seven in a row, and it made me realize what the end goal was – to be around horses like that. He made me fall in love with the sport, and I saw what drove people to find the next big horse.”

While Russell Road was a life-changer for Tobin, she was uplifted by Jesse’s growing excitement and newfound dedication to working in the barn. Once, when he was 16 and having trouble walking Russell Road around the shedrow, Tobin heard Jesse call to her for help – a sign that he knew how important the job was.

“That horse was a handful for me even to walk sometimes,” she said.

But Jesse, he no longer was such a handle. When congratulatory calls flooded Tobin’s phone after Russell Road’s second victory in the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, in the fall of 2011, one in particular stood out.

“It was Jesse telling me how much he loved me and how great a horse person I was. He said he wanted to follow in my footsteps and said how proud he was to be seen as my son,” said Tobin, who has saved the message. “I think I groomed more stakes winners than anyone at Charles Town through working with Mr. Casey over the years, and that message meant more to me because I could see Jesse wanted to work with horses and be successful.”

Those who know Tobin marvel at her work ethic, seeing it reflected in Cruz’s approach to training. “When we raced at Charles Town, she would come to our barn every morning to do stalls, put the horses’ legs in ice and anything else that needed doing,” said Smith. “I think she is the hardest-working person I’ve met.”

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TK and Michele Kuegler of Wasabi Ventures Stables on a recent visit to Tampa Bay Downs

“Jesse wants to be better every single day, and I think that comes from his mom,” Michele Kuegler said. She was amazed to see Tobin, Elizabeth and Jesse’s niece and nephews show up one summer day at Monmouth Park, a drive of about 5 hours, to cheer on Jesse’s horses.

Despite growing up around the likes of Russell Road and Help a Brother, Cruz learned early that racing is rarely as glamorous as often portrayed, especially at tracks such as Charles Town where claiming horses make up the majority of the card and the winters can be brutal. “Our mom taught us one lesson very early – nothing in life is going to be handed to you, but you can get whatever you want out of it as long as you go work for it,” he said.

“She kind of sacrificed her life so we could have ours. She worked from sunup until sundown, because that’s what it takes. You have to put in the care and the time and the passion you have, and if you do that you’ll get the same back. If you don’t, you are kind of going through the motions.”

Cruz’s awakening led to a job galloping horses for Charles Town trainer Ollie Figgins, III, a family friend who recognized the teenager’s desire to absorb more knowledge and make a life for himself on the track. After learning the basics from his parents, Cruz welcomed the chance to expand his continuing education with the widely-respected conditioner.

“He was the person who taught me how to put everything together,” Cruz said. “He had 30 horses, and I saw how he was able to mix things up for each horse and treat them as individuals. I was like the annoying kid who asked a billion questions, but he always took the time to give me the answers. That’s when I realized I wanted to be a trainer.”

Cruz worked for Figgins when the trainer developed Susan Wantz’s sprint filly Dance to Bristol, a stakes winner at 2 and 3 whose career took off in 2013 as a 4-year-old. Dance to Bristol strung together seven consecutive victories, including the Grade III Bed o’ Roses Handicap at Belmont and the Grade II Honorable Miss Handicap and Grade I Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga. As part of her traveling entourage, Cruz discovered a Technicolor world beyond the day-to-day sameness of Charles Town.

“To that point, I’d been around good horses. Russell Road was a really good horse I’d been around, and Ollie had trained good stakes horses,” Cruz said. “But ‘Bristol’ was the first graded horse I’d been around.

“When you get to those levels, you realize that is what racing is meant to be. At the end of the day, the $5,000 claiming horses make up our sport, but the graded races are the Mecca of all of it. To get a horse like that, it’s what we all wake up and strive for.”

Dance to Bristol made it to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and although she finished sixth, the experience was another dream-come-true for Cruz. It was his first airplane trip, and galloping the filly surrounded by so many outstanding horses whetted his appetite for more. That would come over the next few summers, when Cruz returned to Saratoga to work horses for trainers Bill Mott, Mike Maker and Joe Sharp.

“I met Neil Poznansky, who was working for Mr. Mott, and gave him my number,” Cruz said. “He called me that spring and said they needed an exercise rider. Ollie never held me back, so I got to work for those guys. To get to that stage and ride horses like that. … it’s kind of hard to describe.”

Make no mistake: Jesse Cruz is a man in a hurry. He knows firsthand the patience needed to succeed in his craft, but is eager to prove he can compete against the best of them with the right stock.

After taking his trainer’s test on Dec. 31, 2016, Cruz won with the first horse he saddled the following April at Laurel, a 3-year-old gelding named Maryland’s Best owned by Javier Contreras and ridden by Cruz’s good friend, Lane Luzzi.

Cruz won only two races from his next 41 starters to close out 2017, but his confidence wasn’t shaken. He knew he needed better horses to climb the ladder. Kuegler – whose primary business involves investing expertise and capital into early-stage companies with an eye toward growing them into larger, more profitable ventures – saw Cruz as an ideal fit for what he and Michele want to accomplish in racing.

“His story is one you hear with a lot of racetrackers,” Kuegler said. “He grew up on the backside of Charles Town, and that is what his parents’ lives are to this day. I don’t think he ever thought he was going to do anything else. There isn’t anything he can’t do or won’t do, and if someone can do everything in a business, you have somebody who has the potential to be great.”

The majority of horses Cruz claims for Wasabi Ventures Stables come on initial recommendations from Kuegler, who watches as many as 100 race replays daily from around the country. “Once I recommend one, it becomes collaborative,” Kuegler said. “Claiming is all about having a plan, because you’re claiming them for the next race and beyond. What does this horse look like one or two or three races from now?

“That’s where Jesse really comes in. He’ll look at a horse and say ‘This is something we can physically change,’ or he’ll look at changing the distance or the surface or how the horse is trained in an effort to improve its performance.”

Both men subscribe to the philosophy that speed figures don’t lie, but there is often much more that goes into their decision to claim a horse.

“Every trainer has patterns, so when you see someone who typically doesn’t run horses for a claiming price, that is kind of a question mark,” Cruz said. “You might want to watch it run once before you decide to claim it. You also like to watch them walk over (before the race) and make sure everything is right with their legs before you drop the claim slip.”

Cruz’s stable has been performing consistently well since the meet began in late November. Magical Mousse, a (now)-3-year-old colt bred by Wasabi Ventures Stables in partnership, ran a decent fourth in the Inaugural Stakes on Dec. 4, five weeks after breaking his maiden in impressive fashion at Delaware Park, and is nominated for the $125,000 Pasco Stakes on Jan. 15.

The 3-year-old filly Lap of Luxury is 2-for-2 at the meet, including a starter/optional claiming victory on the turf under jockey Isaac Castillo on Dec. 23 at odds of 23-1. Why Not Tonight, a 4-year-old filly, won a $27,000 turf allowance by 7 ¾ lengths on Nov. 27. Hard-knocking 6-year-old mare C’Est Mardi won a claiming race on Nov. 26 and was beaten two necks for the top prize on Jan. 1 in the first leg of the Tampa Turf Test.

Wasabi Ventures Stables’ ownership model invites individuals to purchase anywhere between .5-to-4.5 percent of a horse, with no additional charges or ongoing bills. Wasabi keeps a 20-percent share of each horse; the other members of the syndicate share in the winnings. “If a horse doesn’t earn back (its purchase price), we eat the losses,” TK explained.

Winning races is what keeps any stable afloat, but Cruz, Smith and the Kueglers are determined to keep the welfare of all their horses paramount. Michele Kuegler, who is Wasabi’s director of aftercare and community, keeps the 1,000-plus Wasabi Ventures Stables club members apprised of their efforts to find new homes and vocations for their retired horses.

Down the road, Cruz hopes to build his stable into one capable of competing in the kind of races that first brought him so many thrills when his mother worked for James Casey. His alliance with Wasabi Ventures Stables has both headed in the right direction.

“TK wants to be known in the industry as a good owner and a person who is going to compete in big races,” Cruz said. “This (racing at Tampa Bay Downs) is the next step in trying to get to that level. This is a racetrack a lot of people notice, and it’s tough racing, so to be winning against good trainers with nice stock means a lot.”