by Mike Henry

Rocco Bowen was well on his way to a third consecutive Emerald Downs riding title in 2018 when a training accident threatened to derail his career.

As he was breezing a horse that September, a rein broke, sending Bowen and his mount into the rail. Bowen was knocked unconscious, suffering a concussion and damaging his right shoulder.

After taking a week off, Bowen returned to action to get the three winners he needed to reach 100 for the third season in a row. He went on to ride a meet-high 109 winners, but his victory on Sept. 23 on the filly Iknowyourface – one of 10 horses he rode that day – would be his last race for more than 20 months.


Rocco Bowen

The injury to his shoulder resulted in numbness in his right hand, sending him on a frustrating search for answers. “I had six doctors tell me I would never ride again, because I did not have enough range of motion in my right arm,” Bowen, 32, said. “I floated up to 152 pounds. … basically, the doctors took my heart away.”

Within the racing community, people are often the best remedy for what ails you. And Bowen had enough good ones surrounding him to regain optimism he could return to his previous level of success.

With support from his then-agent, Joe Steiner; his mother, Nancy Bowen, and father Roscoe Bowen, who live in his homeland of Barbados; Kyle Watson, his brother; and friend and fellow jockey Rico Walcott, Bowen came to understand he would never regain peace unless he gave a comeback his best shot.

“They lifted me. They gave me hope, helped restore my confidence,” said Bowen, the Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month who rode three winners on Feb. 11 at Tampa Bay Downs. “I didn’t know what direction to go in, and they gave me the push and the courage to do what I love.”

Steiner, a former jockey, introduced Bowen to BEMER, a therapeutic device that uses a pulsed electromagnetic field to stimulate muscles, increase blood circulation and, ideally, optimize performance. “Joe Steiner was a huge part of my recovery,” Bowen said.

Bowen returned to competition on June 4, 2020 at Belterra Park, winning on three of his first four mounts, including a June 15 victory at Churchill Downs aboard White Wolf. Five months later, he rode career winner No. 1,000 on Dox Folly at Indiana Grand.

Things got even better in 2021. His enthusiasm soaring, Bowen rode 84 winners – not back to the totals from his championship years, but a sign the joy was back for the father of three (sons Rylan, 12, and Caden, 11, and daughter Shayden, 9).

“I caught 23 flights last summer, rode in seven states and won races in six states,” Bowen recalled. He also won several stakes, none more important – professionally and personally – than the Grade III Longacres Mile Handicap at Emerald Downs on Florida-bred gelding Background for trainer Michael Puhich, the rider’s first graded-stakes victory.

At Tampa Bay Downs, Bowen has benefited from riding horses for top trainers Kathleen O’Connell and Eoin Harty, among others. “Those are the ones who have ultra-confidence in me. They are putting me on nice horses, and that makes me feel I am doing things right,” Bowen said.

His current agent, Penny Ffitch-Heyes – a former international show-jumper and professional steeplechase jockey who competed in the Grand National at Aintree in England – emphasizes the rewards of working with Bowen throughout the meeting. “His attitude, his hard work and his personality” have made him an easy sell to trainers, she said.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he is as honest as the day is long,” Ffitch-Heyes said. “He rides a $5,000 claimer with as much intensity as a stakes horse, so people know they are getting their money’s worth from him. He is a kind person who loves horses, and a wonderful guy to work with.”

Bowen plans to ride here through Sunday before flying to Barbados to spend a couple of weeks visiting his mother and friends. “It’s time for me to relax, enjoy my family and talk to youngsters there and let them know there are opportunities for success,” he said. Then, he’ll return to ride at Hawthorne in Illinois, not far from his home in Arlington Heights, and spend the rest of the year riding in the Midwest. He currently stands in a tie for eighth in the Oldsmar standings with 20 winners.

Bowen wants to return to Tampa Bay Downs next season. He knows there are no guarantees, other than the encouragement from family and friends he strives to give back every day.

Around the oval. Today’ fifth race, a $30,000, mile-and-an-eighth maiden special weight contest for 3-year-olds on the turf, saw a pair of highly regarded Kentucky-bred colts duel through the stretch, with Skylander hanging on for a half-length victory from first-time starter James Jones. Fernando De La Cruz rode Skylander, a homebred racing for Godolphin and trained by Bill Mott.

Skylander’s time was 1:50.96. James Jones is trained by Chad Brown, while Claude “Shug” McGaughey, III trains third-place finisher Grand Cay.

Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:13 p.m. The feature is the sixth race, a $35,000, mile-and-40-yard main-track contest for 3-year-old maiden fillies. Eight are entered. The morning-line 2-1 favorite is trainer Arnaud Delacour’s filly Quality, who finished second on Jan. 15 sprinting 6 furlongs in her career debut. Jesus Castanon has been named to ride.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, the Oldsmar oval 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.

“Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament upcoming. The 30th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, which raises funds for Tampa Bay Downs backside workers, will be played Monday, March 7 beginning at noon at Eagles Golf Club in Odessa.

The tournament format is a 4-person scramble. The entry fee is $110 a player, which includes range balls, on-course contests, a boxed lunch, on-course beverages and a goody bag.

Sponsorships and donations are encouraged. “The “Triple Crown” Golf Sponsorship, which covers foursome golf packages, a recognition sign and company or individual name on every hole sign, costs $2,500. Individual hole sponsorships are available for $125.

Suitable donations include gift certificates, retail gift cards, golf-themed and racing-themed baskets, etc. Monetary donations may be mailed to RTCA/Tampa Bay Downs, Post Office Box 2211, Oldsmar, Fla., with a check payable to Race Track Chaplaincy of America.

Backside workers are the lifeblood of every Thoroughbred racetrack, and the “Hearts Reaching Out” event helps to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of these unsung participants. For details or to enter, call Chaplain Pete Crisswell at (304) 433-6808 or Dr. Bill Owens at (813) 240-1340.