by Mike Henry

Wilmer Garcia is trying to give Tampa Bay Downs horsemen and fans something to remember him by after he departs for Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack & Hotel in Iowa next week.

Garcia rode three winners today, elevating him to eight in the standings with 31. He has two days left in the current meet before serving a three-day suspension next week for careless riding, imposed after his mount was disqualified from an apparent victory on Saturday because of interference.


Wilmer Garcia

The 30-year-old Garcia, who rode mostly at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park last summer, will be trying Prairie Meadows and its 1-mile dirt oval (there is no turf racing) for the first time. He plans to work closely with veteran trainer Jon Arnett, who has finished second in the standings each of the last two years.

Garcia has won six times on Arnett-trained horses this season, including a memorable victory on 65-1 shot Blaze Away N Hide on Feb. 23. Prairie Meadows begins its racing season on May 13.

“I’ve been thinking for a while about trying something new, and I feel real confident with Jon,” Garcia said. “He said I will get to ride a lot of horses for him if I go there, so I’m hoping I can do pretty well.”

Garcia said he has turned down a couple of similar opportunities to ride for good trainers, including an offer about five years ago from D. Wayne Lukas to compete at Keeneland. With Arnett’s record of success at Prairie Meadows and elsewhere, Garcia believes his best chance at making a big step in his career is in America’s heartland.

“I’m going to put my hands on him and try to hold on, and look for some other people to ride for who can make my meet a little more successful,” Garcia said. “(Arnett) is helping me find a place to live and a good agent, and I’m real happy to ride for a trainer like him who is very professional and really cares about his horses.”

Garcia, who has 486 career victories, won the second race today on Arnett’s 5-year-old gelding Hard Ten, owned by Rodney M. Miller. Hard Ten was claimed from the race for $8,000 by new owner-trainer Kent Sweezey.

Garcia’s other victories came in the first race on 5-year-old Florida-bred mare Drill’s Valentine for breeder-owner Carl Harnish and trainer Jose A. Chavez and in the fifth aboard 3-year-old gelding Vitale for owner Moabo Stables and trainer James Gulick.

Fernando De La Cruz rode two winners. He scored in the third race on the turf on 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Rainout, bred and owned by Lambholm Stable and trained by Roy Lerman. De La Cruz added the sixth with Jim’s Bronze Star, a 5-year-old mare owned by Pat Cundiff and Gerald Cundiff and trained by Rob O’Connor, II.   

Around the oval. Trainer Kathleen O’Connell swept the late daily double, winning both races on the turf. She triumphed in the eighth with 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding King Ramos, owned by DiBello Racing and ridden by Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr. O’Connell won the ninth with Katies a Lady, a 3-year-old filly owned by Terry E. Davie and ridden by Ademar Santos.

Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:22 p.m. There are six racing days remaining in the 2021-2022 meet after today: Friday; Saturday; next Wednesday, May 4; May 6; May 7, which is Kentucky Derby Day; and June 30, which is the first day of the annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing.

The Oldsmar oval will be the Tampa Bay area’s headquarters for the celebration of the 148th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs on May 7, with a 10-race card beginning at noon leading into the Run for the Roses.

Classic Causeway, who won both the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby here this season, will compete after trainer Brian Lynch found nothing amiss following his last-place finish in the Grade I Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa on April 2 at Gulfstream. Julien Leparoux will ride Classic Causeway in the Kentucky Derby.

Without question, next weekend will be one to remember. It starts Friday, May 6 with a full day of racing here, immediately followed by the simulcast of the $1.25-million Longines Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. Tampa Bay Downs will simulcast the entire Churchill Downs card that day, as always, including six other graded stakes besides the Oaks.

All that is merely an appetizer for the main event the following day, when the eyes of the international sporting community will be riveted on the $3-million classic. A field of 20 3-year-olds is expected. The Kentucky Derby is one of eight stakes on the card, seven graded, a collection of equine excellence matched annually only by the Breeders’ Cup.

Post time for the first race both days at Churchill is 10:30 a.m., and the gates here will open at 10 a.m. to permit fans an opportunity to wager on every race. Patrons will be able to wager on the Kentucky Derby on Friday. On Saturday, “walk-up” wagering will be available outside the main Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand entrance for bettors unable to stay for the action.

Admission is $3 on May 6 and $10 on May 7. Free admission will be available in the Backyard Picnic Area; wagering terminals and restrooms will be available, but the outdoor concession stands will be closed. However, on May 7, food trucks will be positioned on the Grandstand near the paddock, including one selling donuts.

The Kentucky Derby’s traditional drink, the mint julep, will be on sale May 7 for $9 in the official souvenir glass. Mint julep glasses and other Kentucky Derby merchandise will be on sale throughout in the Gift Shop.