Jose Ferrer is all smiles after Helium scored an upset victory in the Tampa Bay Derby
While the track’s old guard of riders has, to date, swept this season’s Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month Awards at Tampa Bay Downs (imagine how ancient this correspondent feels including Antonio Gallardo and Samy Camacho in an “old guard”), the influence of several new faces seems likely to be felt for years to come.
Many of those younger riders are likely to have successful careers by following the example of the current Jockey of the Month, 56-year-old Jose Ferrer. A full 28 years after he last rode in the race, Ferrer won Saturday’s Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on 15-1 shot Helium, then came back Wednesday to ride three winners.
Ferrer rode 10 winners from 39 mounts during the judging period, and that was just enough to wrest the award from Hector Diaz, Jr., who posted a streak of eight consecutive racing days with a victory in his bid for the honor.
You can’t be a jockey without dedication, but Ferrer’s devotion to his craft is exemplary. He lifts weights in a makeshift gym in his garage before and after the races and on off-days, and he rides bikes with his wife Steffi, logging 3-to-6 miles on “dark days.”
“He’s the fittest guy in the world. You’ve never seen a guy as strong as he is,” said trainer Dennis Ward, who uses Ferrer on many of his horses.
Ferrer thrives on competition.
“You have to want it more than anyone else,” said the Santurce, Puerto Rico product, who is ninth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 22 victories and has ridden 4,543 career winners. “You have to be willing to sacrifice and go over the limit.
“Taking shortcuts won’t get you anywhere. People who are willing to dedicate themselves the most are going to be successful, whether it’s in sports or business or any field.”
Ferrer derives tremendous inspiration from Steffi and their sons Derek, 6, and Joseph, 5. Watching his boys run into the winner’s circle after a victory is an awesome sight to the jockey and a treat for Tampa Bay Downs fans. “They are such a big part of my life. I’m so blessed,” Ferrer said.
To last in any profession for almost 40 years, you had better be grounded, because the road isn’t always smooth. In September of 2017 at Delaware Park, Ferrer suffered a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae in a multi-horse spill at Delaware Park.
Someone else might have considered that a sign to retire and be thankful to have dodged disaster one final time. Yet after being told by doctors it would be at least 4-to-6 months before he could get back on a horse, Ferrer started working horses again at Tampa Bay Downs that November, and he won his fourth race back on Dec. 6 aboard Jermyn Street for trainer Keith Nations.
Ferrer finished sixth in the Oldsmar standings that season with 37 winners, but that was merely a warm-up for the following summer. On July 8 at Monmouth Park, he rode a personal-best six winners, and he ran away with the 2018 Monmouth track title with 95 victories.
Ferrer also was the recipient of the 2018 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which honors a jockey whose career and personal character bring credit not only to themselves, but the sport of Thoroughbred racing. The cherished award is determined by a vote of jockeys, who select from five finalists.
Those achievements, and his 27 graded-stakes victories, place Ferrer in rarefied air. But unlike legendary 85-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas (who, after winning the 1999 Kentucky Derby with Charismatic, told a reporter suggesting he might consider retirement that he would be harrowed into the racetrack), Ferrer can’t compete forever.
And the new wave at Tampa Bay Downs, full of competitive vim and vigor, is ready to take up the mantle.
The 31-year-old Diaz, whose career got off to a relatively late start, has been making up for lost time in his debut meeting at Tampa Bay Downs. Displaying an ability to win both on the front end and coming from behind, as well as superb timing on the turf course, Diaz has climbed to fourth in the standings with 45 victories while earning the trust of such outstanding trainers as Kathleen O’Connell, Michael Stidham and Arnaud Delacour.
Jose Batista, 24, is fifth in the standings with 26 victories, with 25-year-old Tomas Mejia tied for sixth with 25 winners and 22-year-old Isaac Castillo eighth with 24. All three are from Panama and at this stage, relatively quiet guys who let their on-track accomplishments do their talking.
Mejia and Batista finished in the top-15 in last year’s Tampa Bay Downs standings, while Castillo gained valuable experience last year at Monmouth, finishing eighth in the standings with 21 winners. The youngster looks polished beyond his years.
Wilmer Garcia, 29, and Raul Mena, 28, have been around a little longer, and the majority of Tampa Bay Downs bettors have no qualms supporting either when the horse and the price look right. They also handle their business the right way in the morning, with positive attitudes and an eagerness to share insights about horses with their trainers after workouts and races.
The racetrack is a classroom, and the only way a jockey gets ahead is by being willing to learn.
“Jose Ferrer is a really good rider, and he’s very good from the gate,” Mena said. “I’m always trying to pay attention to how he breaks a horse from the gate, because he knows how to get to the lead and make the rest of the field fall asleep behind him. We can take a lot of good things from all those (veteran) riders.”
The “kids” might be soft-spoken, but they aren’t afraid to approach an older jockey for insights. “I have a lot of questions for (Ferrer). He’s a really nice guy and a classy person who tries to teach you a lot,” Mena said. “But I also pay attention by watching him in the races, because I know he’s not going to tell me all his secrets.”
Sigh. None of us will be around forever, and replacements seem always at the ready. But it’s heartening to know so many members of the next generation of Tampa Bay Downs standouts have the respect, and the intelligence, to keep the tradition of safe, competitive race-riding alive through their own determination and eagerness to make the most of each opportunity.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2021 Paulick Report.