by Mike Henry

Growing up, it was all about the horses for Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jon Arnett. His late father Bob Arnett was a legend of sorts in the Southwest – winning 11 consecutive training titles at Sunland Park in New Mexico – and the youngster was captivated by everything about the four-legged athletes and the racing environment.

Bob Arnett’s own father Claude was also a trainer, forging a reputation for turning around horses that had gone off form. Observing his father and grandfather on a daily basis, Jon (pronounced “Yon”) grasped the importance of leg work in getting horses to feel good and compete fiercely.


Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Jon Arnett and jockey Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., discuss strategy before a race

Fairly basic stuff, when you think about it. But unless a trainer is willing to put in the time to gain a horse’s understanding that its health and welfare go hand-in-hand with performing on the racetrack, it’s hard to produce positive results.

Claude and Bob Arnett always made the time, and the third-generation horseman took notice.

“You want to keep your horses happy, and you have to be patient,” Jon Arnett said a while back. “If they’re not ready to compete, there is no use putting them out there.”

By the time he was 5 years old, Jon Arnett – who earned the Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Award with five victories over a recent seven-day stretch – was cleaning stalls and bandaging legs in his father’s barn. Bob Arnett also assigned him the task of sitting by the walker to make sure the horses were going around, but Jon is pretty sure that duty was intended to keep him from getting underfoot.

Without delving into the “nature vs. nurture” debate, it was clear almost from the beginning Jon Arnett would be next in the family line to operate a racing stable. Through the inevitable disappointments and the setbacks, he has stayed on course by valuing the contributions of every horse that has gone through his barn.

Along the way, the 61-year-old conditioner has moved ever closer to his father’s career victory total of 2,431 (he’s at 2,184 and counting). Heck of a job? Well, yeah, in a way.

“If you enjoy this, it’s the easiest life there is,” said Arnett, who feels blessed to “work” with horses. “I wouldn’t want nothin’ else. It’s unbelievable how fast the day goes by – you can show up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, and when the races are through, you think wow, I can’t believe the day is already over, and I didn’t get half the stuff done that I wanted to.”

Arnett receives unwavering support from his wife of 42 years, Susan, who is also a trainer with 163 victories. “She is kind of my right-hand man,” he said in his plain-spoken fashion. “She is always right there with me.”

Jockey Pablo Morales, who rode Arnett’s 6-year-old Florida-bred mare Uptown Queen to victory in today’s first race, believes Arnett’s thorough preparation is a key to his ongoing success.

“He seems to be there on the pony with every single set in the mornings, paying attention to every single one of his horses,” Morales said. “I’m really happy that he appreciates me enough to let me work his horses in the morning and ride them in the afternoon.

“Mr. Jon is a very hard-working guy, and he does what is right for the horses all the time. He’s on top of the business, and he’s been nothing but nice to me. It’s a privilege to work with such a great horseman.”

With about 45 horses in his stable, Arnett delegates some of the load to his employees. “You have to depend a lot on your grooms to stay underneath the horses and work on their legs, and it takes them a little longer and they work a little harder. But it pays off for all of us,” Arnett said.

Arnett’s fast start in Oldsmar follows a summer in which he ran away with the training title at Prairie Meadows in Iowa, sending out 61 winners from 204 starters. That was his first title at Prairie Meadows; he has won a combined 16 titles at Sunland, Albuquerque and SunRay Park in New Mexico and Arapahoe Park in Colorado.

His top horse in the Hawkeye State last year was Fleetridge, a (now)-5-year-old gelding Arnett claimed for $15,000 for new owner NBS Stable from a second-place finish at Prairie Meadows on June 13. Fleetridge won two of his next three starts and finished second in the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (at odds of 31-1) and third in the Downs At Albuquerque Handicap, and is back in training for his 2023 debut at the Oldsmar oval. The trainer’s speedy stakes-winning, 7-year-old Florida-bred gelding Oil Money, owned by Danny Stafford, is also due to return soon.

Arnett also trains the Oldsmar oval’s current wins leader, Alizee, whom he claimed from a Nov. 26 victory for $6,250 for owner Rodney Miller. The (now)-7-year-old mare has won her two subsequent starts impressively sprinting at the starter/$12,500 optional claiming level.

After finishing fourth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings two seasons ago with 25 victories and sixth last season with 19, Arnett believes this year can be better. “We’ve picked up some horses that run on the turf, and I think that’s going to pay off for us,” said Arnett, who might have struggled in that category previously because Prairie Meadows does not have turf racing. “And I’ve kind of learned how (Oldsmar Racing Secretary) Allison (De Luca) writes the condition book and tried to get horses that fit the races here.”

Arnett came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, when racing was as big as any sport in the United States, save for baseball and football. He took advantage of his love of the game to get an education that transcended traditional learning, and those in charge were satisfied with the arrangement.

“In high school, my principal knew I was leaving at 12 o’clock on Wednesday and Friday. He’d call me over the intercom, and I’d take my racing form to his office. He’d ask ‘What do you like today?’ We split bets, and he told me he’d be at the track as soon as he could get out of there.”

Only one of them really ever returned to work.

Mighty Heart returns to winner’s circle. Mighty Heart, the 2020 Queen’s Plate Stakes winner in Canada who has competed against graded-stakes company almost exclusively the last two years, showed he hasn’t lost much – if anything – in winning today’s eighth race, an allowance/optional claiming event, in his 6-year-old debut.

The Ontario-bred, a career millionaire, held off a determined late rally by Bumperdoo to post a half-length victory in a time of 1:40.21 for the mile-and-40-yard distance. Helium, the 2021 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner, finished a non-threatening third in the seven-horse field, another 7 ¾ lengths back.

Mighty Heart was ridden by Daniel Centeno, who had breezed the horse 5 furlongs on Dec. 31 in 1:01 over the Oldsmar oval strip. The victory was the first for Mighty Heart since winning the Grade II Autumn Stakes at Woodbine 14 months earlier. He paid $4.20 to win as the betting favorite.

Mighty Heart is owned by his breeder, Larry Cordes, and trained by Patrick County, Jr. His immense popularity north of the border stems not only from his speed and tenacity as a racehorse, but from competing despite the loss of his left eye due to a paddock accident when he was 2 weeks old.

“I’m very emotional because a lot of hard work goes into this every day,” said County, who credited his stepdaughter and assistant Jennifer Perrin for her role in preparing the horse. “This means a lot to everybody.”

Centeno said he liked Mighty Heart the day he worked him, and even more so now. After racing just off the pace through moderate early fractions, Mighty Heart began to roll at the ¼-mile pole and put too much distance between himself and the others to be caught.

“I didn’t want to take the lead too early, but he did it really easy and fought all the way to the wire,” Centeno said. “He felt (Bumperdoo) coming and fired a little bit again. He didn’t want to get beat today.”

Mighty Heart improved to 7-for-23. Helium, who has lost 10 consecutive times since the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby triumph (he does have three second and three thirds) flattened out late, and jockey Jose Ferrer said he appeared to have no excuses.

Around the oval. Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., rode two winners today. He was aboard 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Luna’s Treasure in the fourth race for owner Art Pedregal, Jr., and trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Diaz added the seventh on the turf on Van Dusen, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Force of Nature Farms and Emmet Jolley and trained by Jonathan Thomas.

Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:32 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.