by Mike Henry

After Awesome Pic finished second in the Sandpiper Stakes on Dec. 3 in her final start as a 2-year-old, trainer and co-owner Robert G. Smith received an offer to sell the Florida-bred filly.

In the current economic climate, where the costs of training and caring for Thoroughbreds continue to rise, with no apparent end in sight, turning a tidy profit often makes more sense than gambling that a horse’s worth will increase after its next start.

But it’s also true there are no bills due for dreams, and Smith and his partners – Awesome Pic’s breeder Richard Kingston George, Wayne Owens and grandson Chico Owens – believe she is capable of upping her value through continued strong performances on the racetrack.


Robert G. Smith

To what degree their optimism, and their dreams, are justified will be determined in part in Saturday’s $125,000, 7-furlong Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, in which Awesome Pic is slated to face seven other 3-year-old fillies, including Sandpiper Stakes record-setter Dorth Vader.

The Gasparilla is one of three main-track stakes races on a 10-race Skyway Festival Day program, with chilly, sunny weather forecast. It is the ninth race on the card. Saturday’s other stakes are the $125,000, 7-furlong Pasco Stakes for 3-year-old males, slated as the sixth race, and the $50,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward, scheduled as the seventh race. Post time for the first race is 12:32 p.m.

Samuel Camacho, Jr., has the return riding engagement on Awesome Pic, who is 3-for-7 in her career with a second and a third and career earnings of $69,700. She will break from the outside No. 8 post, which Smith hopes is an advantage because she has won on both the front end and coming from behind and it should provide Camacho a few valuable seconds to see how the pace scenario unfolds in front of him before deciding whether to send Awesome Pic to the lead or lay off the front-runners.

The main reasons for optimism, Smith says, are that Awesome Pic is in excellent form – she breezed 4 furlongs in an energetic 50 seconds a week ago at his Wesfield Farm in Ocala – and that the daughter of Awesome Slew-Shirley’s Pic has always shown a desire to compete.

“Even before we broke her as a yearling, she was really competitive,” Smith said. “She’d be out in her paddock with five other fillies, and when it came feed time she was always the first one there. She would not let nobody else get her feed.

“She was always doing good when we started racing her, but when she got her first win (in a 5 ½-furlong maiden claiming contest at Gulfstream Park on Aug. 7), the light bulb really came on,” Smith said. “She is doing super, and I had this race picked out for her early on. We are real pumped up, and half my crew is coming down (from Wesfield Farm) for the race.”

Awesome Pic is the first foal from Shirley’s Pic, an unraced 9-year-old daughter of Overdriven who is currently in foal to Grade III stakes winner and $971,825 earner Three Rules. That Florida-bred sire is owned in partnership by Smith, Bert Pilcher’s Shade Tree Thoroughbreds and two other individuals. The foal will be part of the first crop for Three Rules, whom Smith bred to about 20 of his mares last year.

“He is a real good-looking horse with a great race record and Shirley’s Pic is a real pretty mare, so we’re real excited about their foal and his other upcoming offspring,” Smith said.

But Saturday is a day for chasing dreams with Awesome Pic, who by winning – or running well in defeat – becomes a candidate for a profitable deal, or maybe a pursuit of the $150,000, mile-and-40-yard Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Feb. 11 at Tampa Bay Downs.

“I think (Awesome Pic’s) ideal distance is between 7 furlongs and a mile-and-a-sixteenth (she won her only 7-furlong start by 5 ¾ lengths at Gulfstream), so if she were to win and we don’t get something (a sales transaction) done, we would definitely look at the next race at Tampa,” Smith said.

Smith is well aware that Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse is considering the Suncoast for his 3-year-old filly Wonder Wheel, who won the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in November at Keeneland. Casse, it should be noted, trained the multiple graded-stakes winning Florida-bred millionaire Awesome Slew – yeah, Awesome Pic’s sire – for owner Live Oak Plantation.

Casse has entered Personal Pursuit, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Tapit, in the Gasparilla, and Smith reflects on the small-world coincidence of three long-time friends competing for the winner’s share. “My wife (Saronda) went to school with Mark, and Michael (Yates, the trainer of Dorth Vader) is a good friend of ours,” Smith said. “It would definitely be nice if one of the three of us could win.

“If we were to get lucky and win (the Gasparilla) and Mark sends (Wonder Wheel) here, we would love to have the opportunity to try to outrun her. Because if you beat a horse like that, it puts your horse on a whole different stage as far as racing is concerned. That is kind of what we all do this for,” Smith said.

Rojas is Boot Barn Jockey of Month. Carlos Eduardo Rojas has experienced much of his success thus far at Tampa Bay Downs riding for his Venezuelan countryman, leading trainer Jorge Delgado. The two have combined for 10 victories, six seconds and two thirds from 22 starters.

But even though he has been riding in the United States for less than eight months and speaks little English, Rojas is making a strong impression outside the Delgado barn.


Carlos Eduardo Rojas

“He listens,” trainer Monica McGoey replied firmly when asked to describe Rojas’s top attributes. “And he is versatile. If a horse goes to the front he can stay up front, and if a horse comes from off the pace he can ride it just as well.

“He puts himself in the right position in a race,” said McGoey, who has sent Rojas out on three winners. “A trainer has to have the horse ready to win, but he has ridden every one for me to their fullest capability.”

His meet-long performance earned the 29-year-old the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award. Rojas is tied for fourth in the Oldsmar standings with 14 victories, and his 29.2-percent win rate and 68.8 in-the-money percentage are best among all Tampa Bay Downs jockeys with at least three winners.

Despite finishing in the top 10 of the Monmouth Park standings last summer with 23 winners and capturing two stakes, Rojas was basically an unknown entity in these parts when he arrived at Tampa Bay Downs this season.

That has changed quickly. “I think he is very underrated,” McGoey said. “He is always trying, and he strives to get you a third or fourth-place paycheck if his horse can’t win. He wants to ride your horse back (the next time).”

Rojas’s agent Dylan Fazio, who also books mounts for former Tampa Bay Downs jockey Isaac Castillo, now at Oaklawn Park, picked up Rojas near the end of the Monmouth meeting. “We hit it off from the start,” Fazio said. “He is an intelligent rider who picks things up quickly, and whatever I tell him, he puts into action.

“The riding style is more aggressive in Venezuela – here, you have to be a little more patient – and he has adapted quickly. There are very few riders you come upon who were meant to be a jockey, but he fits the role and is doing a very good job,” Fazio said.

Rojas was Venezuela’s top apprentice jockey in 2015 and has won big races at La Rinconada and National Racetrack Valencia in his homeland and Santa Rosa Park in Trinidad and Tobago. Married, with daughters ages 3 and 2, he is working hard to improve his English skills, and in a recent interview made a point to thank trainers for giving him the opportunities to pursue his dreams.

And, like every good jockey, he comes to each assignment and each day with confidence. He told an interviewer he expects to be in the top-five of the Oldsmar standings this season.

“Carlos is looking to move forward in his career every day,” said his friend Elvis Faure, who is helping him communicate with people on the backside and acclimate to the Tampa Bay Downs scene. “He wants to learn as much as he can and keep getting better.”

Around the oval. Six-time leading Oldsmar jockey Daniel Centeno rode two winners today. He scored in the third race on Aries  Reigns, a 4-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Jody Veitch and Robert Schweiger and trained by Lynn Rarick. Centeno added the seventh with Simms, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Bell Gable Stable and trained by Mario R. Lopez.

Tampa Bay Downs 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.