TRAINER OF MONTH SCHISTL KEEPS GOALS IN CLEAR SIGHT

by Mike Henry

Somewhere among Rafael Schistl’s belongings is a beat-up suitcase sporting stickers from the countries in which the 33-year-old product of Itajai, Brazil competed as a jockey from 2005-2019, compiling almost 700 victories.

There’s Norway, where he won three Derbies while riding for prominent owner Nils-Petter Gill. And Denmark and Sweden, providing a combined three additional tastes of Derby glory.

There’s Sweden, Switzerland and Dubai, along with Germany, France, Italy and New Zealand. And did we mention Spain and Mauritius?

His experiences on and off the racetrack, including his 250 victories in stakes races and/or classics, would fill several scrapbooks. The memories of his greatest triumphs remain rich and vibrant. He even found time along the way to add English, Spanish and German to his native language, Portuguese.

But about five or six years ago, Schistl came face-to-face with virtually every jockey’s biggest foe: the constant, day-to-day struggle to make weight.

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Rafael Schistl communes at his Tampa Bay Downs barn with his 4-year-old gelding Shaldag

“I could see I didn’t have much longer to be a jockey, because I was too heavy,” said Schistl, who earned the Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month Award after climbing to fourth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 20 victories. “My father was a trainer and my grandfather was a trainer, and it’s something I always wanted to do. So I think it is in the blood.”

Schistl, who enjoys driving muscle cars as a hobby, put the pedal to the metal when it came time to alter paths. In October of 2019, he took his talents to Eddie Woods Stables in Ocala to learn to break yearlings. About 10 months later, with an offer on the table to move to France to train, Schistl was approached by Bob Jones – the owner, with his wife Jill, of Endsley Oaks Farm in Brooksville, about 50 miles from Tampa Bay Downs  – to train their horses.

Endsley Oaks employs a horse exerciser machine, an equine swimming pool and two tracks – a 3/8-mile training track and a mile-and-a-quarter, European-style dirt gallop – to keep horses fit and race-ready, and the proximity of the farm to Tampa Bay Downs allows for easy transport.

The early returns indicate Schistl made a great choice. After saddling 10 winners from 55 starters last season, Schistl is 20-for-109 at the current meet, trailing only Gerald Bennett, Kathleen O’Connell and Juan Arriagada in the victory standings.

“It all happened fast. It was a lot of work and a lot of things to learn, and I’m still learning, of course,” said Schistl, whose years riding for trainer Niels Petersen in Norway helped to establish a foundation for his current success.

“It (his relationship with the Joneses) is like a family,” Schistl said of his primary owner. “They give me anything I need that makes sense for the horses. We have nine 2-year-olds at the farm that are coming to the track this week (eight owned by Endsley Oaks) that we bought as yearlings, and I’d like to buy a few more at Keeneland and Ocala this year.”

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Schistl shared his feelings with the world after winning the 2010 Swedish Derby on Moe Green (photo provided by Rafael Schistl)

Schistl, who plans to have at least several of Endsley Oaks’s juveniles ready to compete later this year at either Monmouth Park or Gulfstream, says he will let each horse dictate its progress toward entering the gate. “I won’t rush a horse just to get it to the races,” he said. “I train them all individually, because they do things differently and have different needs.”

Mina Haug, Schistl’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant and the mother of their infant son Rafael (Schistl’s daughters Victoria, 11, and Rafaela, 10, live with their mother in Brazil), credits his ability to deal with each horse’s specific needs as instrumental to his success. “There is a system, but he is going to work with each horse on a one-on-one basis. He has a great love for the horses,” Haug said.

Schistl has also been active in the claiming arena. On Wednesday, 7-year-old mare Luna Queen – a horse he had lost through a claim, then claimed back in her next start – recorded her second consecutive victory for the conditioner and Endsley Oaks in a $16,000 claiming race on the turf.

Other multiple Schistl-trained winners at the meet include Take to the Skies, Shaldag, Tiz Lottie, Pharaoh Fancy Pant, Jack Rabbit Quick and Latin Nikkita.

Down the road, Schistl yearns to be a top-level trainer, with a stable the size of such industry titans as Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. But after riding so many horses to the winner’s circle, he recognizes that it takes a village to give a jockey and a trainer their opportunities.

“Mina and Luis Alberto, my assistant at the farm, are my left and right arms, and our forewoman at the track, Lidia Moyano, can do anything,” Schistl said. “Most of the people on my team have been working with me since I started, and I figure out a lot of things by listening to them.”

Classic Causeway entered in Grade I Curlin Florida Derby. Classic Causeway, the winner of both the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby here this season, is part of an 11-horse field in Saturday’s Grade I, $1-million Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park.

Trainer Brian Lynch originally had planned to make the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass on April 9 at Keeneland Classic Causeway’s final start before the May 7 Kentucky Derby. But a strong half-mile workout in 46 4/5 seconds last Saturday at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, along with the relative ease of shipping from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream, resulted in the switch.

Classic Causeway will break from the No. 2 post position under Irad Ortiz, Jr., his jockey in both the Sam F. Davis and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. He is 7-2 on the morning line, with Grade II Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Simplification – to be ridden by Jose Ortiz, Irad’s brother – the 5-2 favorite.

The entries include Strike Hard, who finished fourth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in his most recent start and will be ridden by Junior Alvarado.

Shipsational, the New York-bred colt who finished second in the Sam F. Davis and third in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, will not run because of a minor tear in a suspensory ligament in his right front leg. The injury was discovered on Wednesday after inflammation was found in his right front ankle.

Trainer Edward Barker said he hopes Shipsational can return to competition in the summer, but he is off the Triple Crown trail.

The Curlin Florida Derby is the 14th and final race on the card, with a proposed post time of 6:38 p.m. The full card from Gulfstream will be simulcast here, of course, along with the full card from Oaklawn Park, featuring the Grade I, $1.25-million Arkansas Derby.

Around the oval. Pablo Morales rode back-to-back winners today. He won the sixth race on Ornery Angel, a 5-year-old Florida-bred mare owned by Rodney M. Miller and trained by Jon Arnett. Morales added the seventh with Lady Jean, a 5-year-old Florida-bred mare owned and trained by Victor Carrasco, Jr.

Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:08 p.m. The third and sixth races will be switched from the turf to the main track because of wet grounds.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through May 7, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed, and May 1, when the Thoroughbred action is limited to simulcasting.

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.