Tampa Bay Downs is proud to introduce its blog, “Racing in the Sunshine.” By giving visitors an up-close and personal look at the majestic world of Thoroughbred racing, the sport’s participants – racing officials, horsemen, backstretch workers, trainers, jockeys and track employees – hope to entertain and inform fans everywhere.
A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and
reflections about their favorite sport
Despite being only 13, Danielle Ballou played a role in one
of the meet’s early success stories. At the Ocala Breeders’ Sales June
Two-Year-Old & Horses of Racing Age Sale, Danielle picked out a bay filly
from the consignment of Southern Chase Farm for her father, construction
executive Steve Ballou. Her opinion was confirmed by bloodstock agent Marette Farrell,
and Dad signed the sale ticket for $42,000. Now owned by Steve Ballou, Harriet
Waldron and partners, and trained by Joan Scott, Cor Cor is 2-for-2, including
a scintillating score in the $75,000 Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on
Dec. 1 under jockey Scott Spieth. Cor Cor’s time of 1:10.02 for six furlongs
was a stakes record. The daughter of 1997 champion sprinter Smoke Glacken, out
of a mare by 1986 2-year-old champion Capote, is entered in the Grade III Old
Hat Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 1. Cor Cor is named after Danielle’s older
sister, Corri. Danielle cares for two retired Thoroughbreds at the Ballou home,
riding them on trails at the end of her street.
BEST HORSES EVER
OWNED/SEEN: Cor Cor, of course, is the best horse I’ve ever been a part of.
I saw (2011 Preakness winner) Shackleford in his first race as a 2-year-old at
Keeneland, when one of our horses, Fifth District, finished ahead of him by a
nose. And I was at Gulfstream to watch one of our horses run when (Breeders’
Cup Ladies Classic winner) Royal Delta finished second in the Sabin Stakes to
HOW I GOT STARTED IN
RACING: My dad and my grandfather, Ron Ballou, bought a horse named Who’s
MY BIGGEST INFLUENCES:
In horse racing, Joan Scott and her assistant, Aldana Gonzalez. They are really
good with the horses, know what is best for them and care for them deeply. And
Marette Farrell – I love going to the sales with her.
ONE CHANGE I WOULD
MAKE TO RACING: Ban the use of whips. I think if everyone didn’t use whips,
it would just make the jockeys work harder.
MY FAVORITE SPORTS
TEAM: None, but I played soccer with the West Florida Premier and currently
play volleyball for the Pinellas Heat.
NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET
LIST: Go to the KentuckyDerby.
FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT
TAMPA BAY DOWNS: I like Matt & Tanya’s ice cream downstairs in the
grandstand, and the turf course is really nice.
SHOW/MOVIE: The Hunger Games and Secretariat.
ADVICE TO SOMEONE
STARTING IN RACING: Be confident around the horses and do what it takes to
make them happy. Pay a lot of attention to them!
Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections
Charles “C.C.” Lopez was born to be a jockey. His
father Carlos Lopez, Sr., who lives in Hollywood, Fla., rode for more than 40
years in the United States and Puerto Rico. Three brothers were jockeys; the
best-known, Carlos, Jr., remains active in Maryland. And C.C.’s sons David and
Erick are former jockeys who currently gallop horses. A mid-Atlantic fixture, Lopez
rode his first winner in 1979, capturing the Meadowlands riding title the same
year as a teenager. He has ridden more than 4,000 winners and his mounts have
earned more than $86-million. Among his best-known horses are multiple-graded
stakes winner Gottcha Gold, who was second under Lopez in the 2007 Breeders’
Cup Dirt Mile; Valid Video; Gators N Bears; and Key Lory.
HORSE EVER RIDDEN: Gottcha Gold. Besides finishing second
to Corinthian in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, we won three Grade III races: the
Salvator Mile and Philip H. Iselin Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth and the Skip Away
I GOT STARTED IN RACING: My dad was a jockey, so I always
thought I would ride. The only other thing I wanted to do was be an astronaut.
BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My father has always been my idol. He
accomplished great things in his career, and I always admired what he could do
on a race horse. After he won the biggest race in Puerto Rico, he became a star
CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Do more to promote it
at both the national and local level.
FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM/ATHLETE: Thoroughbred racing
and my father.
1 ON MY BUCKET LIST: Race in a NASCAR event. I’ve done a
lot of quarter-mile racing at Englishtown Raceway Park in New Jersey, and I
have a Pontiac Trans Am 12-second drag racer. I also own a 1985 Cadillac
Eldorado and I’ve restored a 1962 Fleetwood.
TV SHOW: Star Trek.
Growing up, Captain Kirk was my hero.
THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The turf course. There is nothing
wrong with the dirt course, but the turf is a real nice surface to ride on.
TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Be the best you can
A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s
opinions, observations and
reflections about their favorite sport
Before going out on her own in 2000, Joan Scott galloped
horses or worked as an assistant for top trainers Bud Delp, Elliott Walden,
Carl Nafzger and Nick Zito. Racing has given her an opportunity to travel
extensively, and she worked at such prestigious sales as Deauville in France
and Newmarket in England. Scott was a co-owner and trainer of Dr. Zic, a filly
who won the Grade I Vinery Madison at Keeneland two years after capturing the Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in her
second career start. Scott won this season’s Sandpiper on Opening Day with Cor
Cor, a filly she trains for Steve Ballou and Harriet Waldron.
BEST HORSE EVER
OWNED/TRAINED/RIDDEN: I owned and trained Grade I winner Dr. Zic and
trained Grade II winner Freefourinternet, who I ran in the 2003 NetJets
Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Also, talk about things coming full circle:
Dr. Zic is in foal to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Unbridled’s Song, a horse I
galloped for Nick Zito.
HOW I GOT STARTED IN
RACING: I went to Kentucky to work with Saddlebreds and got a job working
the Keeneland November Sale and breaking Thoroughbred yearlings for Margaux
Stud. I loved the opportunities the sport provides.
INSPIRATION: My dad – he was kind, honest and always had faith in me.
ONE CHANGE I WOULD
MAKE TO RACING: Create national uniform medication rules.
MY FAVORITE SPORTS
TEAM/ATHLETE: My horses, the members of Joan Scott Racing!
NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET
LIST: To travel to Machu Picchu in Peru.
FAVORITE MOVIE: Raising Arizona (1987).
FAVORITE THING ABOUT
TAMPA BAY DOWNS: It is a great surface to train on. The horses relax here, and
so do I!
ADVICE TO SOMEONE
STARTING IN RACING: Educate yourself. Work hard, ask questions and keep an
open mind. Pay attention to what successful owners, trainers and jockeys do,
and learn from it.
The entire staff of Tampa Bay Downs expresses its gratitude toward our fans for their continued support of Thoroughbred Racing. We look forward to seeing everyone again next fall for the start of the 2012-2013 meeting.
During the live season, Judy Gittins might have the best view in the house. She is the hostess inside the Stella Artois Garden Suite, located just past the finish line. For $7.50, guests receive a racing program, snacks, food and beverage service and great company, courtesy of Judy and parimutuel teller Joe Maley. "We try to help people understand what racing is about," Judy said, with an emphasis on camaraderie and fun. The view is panoramic, encompassing the lush turf course, big-screen infield television and tote board, the post parade and finish. And when the horses cross the wire and the noise subsides, the decelerating hoof beats of the horses provide an audible soundtrack from the theater-style seats. Judy – who has been at Tampa Bay Downs since 1986, in various capacities – feels blessed to stay involved, but it is her ability to relate to Thoroughbred racing fans from all backgrounds and income levels that makes the Stella Artois Garden Suite such a popular destination. Judy will soon return to her summer home in Saranac, N.Y. with her partner, Bobby Drollette, but when September rolls around, she'll start marking off her calendar until their return to Florida's west coast. Judy has four children and six grandchildren.
I'm still not sure why I was asked to write a blog. Most people my age, I think, don't even know what a blog is. And when I started reading the ones that have been posted this season, I got nervous, because these other people have done so much in horse racing.
I mean, Joe Waunsch, the Director of Stabling and former leading trainer, broke Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown. It doesn't get any better than that! And I was very impressed by (Special Events Director) Nicole McGill's blog. She has done such a great job bringing groups to enjoy a day at the racetrack, a lot of people who haven't been here before.
The blog from Ron Dill, the starter, brought back a lot of memories because my ex-husband, Doug Gittins, used to be the starter here. Doug moved to Sam Houston in Texas when they opened in the mid-1990s. Those guys on the gate crew are a tough bunch, believe me.
It's always fun hearing about (jockey) Rosemary Homeister, Jr., and it is even more enjoyable to read her story in her own words. I don't know if she's gotten enough credit for coming back and being so successful after having a baby last summer.
I really learned a lot reading the blog from the Association Veterinarian (Dr. Kristen Pastir). It was very informative and I believe that if the racing game, and Tampa Bay Downs, can keep attracting that quality of person, we are going to be in very good shape for the foreseeable future.
Even though I don't think I'm as interesting as those folks, the reason I agreed to write a blog is I've done just about everything else at the racetrack except announce a race and read a lip tattoo. The racetrack has always seemed a natural environment for me, because I grew up riding hunters and jumpers and five-gaited horses and did very well showing at the New York State Fair and in Canada.
It really started when I was about 10 and my dad won a pony in some kind of contest. I was so excited, because I loved horses, and I walked that pony home from Cadyville, N.Y. to Dannemora, which is about six miles. I led that pony right to the house, and Daddy converted the garage into stalls and that's how I got started.
Horses kept me out of a lot of trouble when I was young. I mean, boy trouble. I was so into my horses, I didn't really pay too much attention to a boy unless he had a nice horse.
I moved to Tampa in the 1970s after I came down from New York to visit my sister. I looked around the area and said, this is for me! My background was in food and beverage service, and I worked at The Barn Bar, a racetrack hangout, down on Hillsborough Avenue. It was a place owners and trainers and horse people visited after the races. Later on, we had all the bikers. We stayed open until 3 a.m. and everything in Pinellas County closed at 2 a.m., so we would be mobbed on the weekends.
I worked on the floor, I worked behind the bar and sometimes I worked in the kitchen. Then the owner, Arlene Croft, said she was going to close the place unless I agreed to manage it, so I did that. I was there about 14 years and met a lot of nice people, including Doug Gittins, who worked at the racetrack.
When I started at Tampa Bay Downs in 1986 I was the greeter at the door and in charge of programs. Then Mrs. (Lorraine) King, who was the general manager, asked me to run the admissions department. I wasn't sure if I was capable because I wasn't computer savvy, but she convinced me with the proper training I could do it. I have always been thankful for her encouragement and support because it started a whole new career for me.
By 1989, I was Director of Admissions and Parking, a job I also held at Monmouth Park. I thought I had it made, because I got to spend the winter down south at beautiful Tampa Bay Downs and spend the summer on the Jersey shore! Jimmy Scatuorchio, the owner of More Than Ready, English Channel and Scat Daddy, was a good friend, and his daughter and son worked for me at Monmouth.
I remember the first year (trainer) Bob Baffert came for the Haskell Stakes. We had a big breakfast with the officials and trainers and other folks, and he came over and kissed my cheek. I said “Oooh!” That made me feel pretty special.
For a few years before I went to Monmouth, we would leave here and go to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. I was in charge of food and beverage service in the dining room, and I had 150 college kids working under me. I got many compliments from people who said they got the best service they've ever had.
Before I got there, the kids would stay in the kitchen instead of waiting on people, but I decided to change the whole atmosphere and attitude of the place. They would see me helping out – if the cook got behind I'd stay in the kitchen to help him, and if the dishwashers got behind I would take my jacket off and get busy. The kids respected me for that, and before long everyone was pitching in to make the customer experience top-notch and the restaurant a place where people wanted to keep returning.
Mr. (Peter) Berube, the general manager here, put me in charge of the Stella Artois Garden Suite four or five years ago. It has really gotten busy because it is such a beautiful spot on the track, and I love it. Once people spend a day there, a lot of them say they're never going back to where they were before.
As much as I love the horses, it's the people that make my job rewarding. Joe and I enjoy meeting and serving everyone, whether they are big bettors or someone at the track for the first time. Joe is very good at explaining how the betting works, the different kind of bets and how to make them.
You have to remember, when people come to the racetrack for the first time, a lot of the terminology sounds like a foreign language. We'll get asked 'Do horses run in the rain?' (Yes), or 'Do the same horses run in every race?' (No), or 'Where are they coming from?' So we'll explain what happens on the backside of the track, which is like a little village, and you see people start getting interested. By the time they leave, a lot of them have met new friends and made plans to meet up here again.
Bobby, my partner, is retired from Budweiser, and we have a nice house up in Saranac, N.Y. It's up in the mountains, and we enjoy camping and fishing. Sometimes we'll go into Montreal to the casino. That is a very cosmopolitan city. Or we'll spend a week at Saratoga for the races. But there isn't a whole lot do up there, so we're always looking forward to driving back here in our travel trailer and seeing all our friends.
Like I said, I don't think I'm as interesting as the other bloggers, but I certainly have met some fascinating people. Not many people remember when they had Quarter Horse racing here at Tampa Bay Downs one summer in the mid-1970s, but that's how I met Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore. They used to sit at the end table of the dining room, and he had running Appaloosas at his farm in Jupiter.
I got to know him pretty well, and he asked me to help out on his farm, so on Sunday afternoons I went to Jupiter and rubbed his horses. That was one of the best jobs I've ever had. The horses would stick their heads out of the stalls and start nickering when I went to feed them, and some nights they would race at Pompano on the east coast.
Usually, I would be too tired to eat when I got home, but I loved it. So you can see, like I always say, horses kept me out of a lot of trouble – even with Burt Reynolds!
When jockeys enter the room, their focus narrows to their mounts and winning races. The task of helping them prepare falls to their valets, who handle many of the small details that can affect a rider’s performance. Setting out equipment, polishing boots and saddles, equipping helmets with goggles and purchasing drinks and vitamins is only the beginning. Valets assist trainers with saddling and help unsaddle horses after a race. They are also responsible to ensure riders carry the proper weight and wear the correct silks. Kevin Velez, a 24-year-old valet for third-leading rider Angel Serpa at Tampa BayDowns, was born to the job: his father is jockey Jose Velez Jr., who has won more than 3,000 races. Jose and Karla Velez, Kevin’s mother, live in south Florida. Kevin’s older brother Jason is a valet at Monmouth Park. His sister Amber is a college freshman and younger brother Anden is in eighth grade. Kevin’s grandparents, John and Judy Sessa, are Thoroughbred breeders and owners. Kevin has worked as a foreman for trainers Kelly Breen and Jane Cibelli and hopes to one day operate his own stable.
The most difficult thing for a valet is trying to be perfect. When your riders look at their stuff that they are paying you to take care of, you want them to think ‘Yeah, he’s doing the job.’ One time I sent a rider out for a route race with turf goggle equipment. He didn’t have enough goggles, and he really couldn’t see for part of the race.
He didn’t yell at me afterward; he pulled me off to the side and talked to me like a man. But I still felt bad, because I’m getting paid to make sure my jockeys have the right equipment. He just told me ‘Kevin, pay more attention. I understand you’re busy, but can you please make sure it doesn’t happen the next time?’
I give these guys a lot of credit. I’ve seen some of them go in the hot box for a long time, just to lose enough weight to ride that one horse. It can be 2-1 or 30-1, it doesn’t matter. They love doing what they do, and you can’t take it away from them. They have a passion for it.
There are a lot of jockeys I look up to, but my father is absolutely my favorite. He didn’t graduate from high school, but he would do anything to provide for his family. He would cut off his right arm to save one of our lives. Whatever he needed to do to make weight, he’d do it to make sure we had food on the table.
I started hanging around the jockeys’ room when I was 7. My father rode at Calder and in New Jersey during the summer, and it was a lot of fun growing up in that environment. He rode a lot of big horses. In 2002, he was second in the Dubai World Cup on a horse named Sei Mi. Two years before that – when I was 13 – I kicked our TV and broke it when he and North East Bound got beat on the wire by War Chant and Gary Stevens in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.
In 2003, we were all at Monmouth when my father won the $750,000 United Nations Handicap on the turf for trainer Todd Pletcher on Balto Star, who was a 37-1 shot and set a track record. My father was the only local rider in the race. It was funny because our suits got on the wrong plane, so we are in the win photo wearing dress jeans and polo shirts.
My father always had a great relationship with the guys he competed against, and those friendships extended to our family. I call Alex Solis my uncle; we really aren’t related, but he is a great friend to us. Edgar Prado and John Velazquez have always been nice to us. Marland Suckie is my dad’s best friend and has been like a second father to me. Joe Bravo used to invite us places, and he went to the Bahamas with us on a vacation.
When we were kids and my dad rode at Gulfstream, we would play volleyball and cook out on the beach on dark days. Down here, we have the same kind of relationship among some of the riders and valets. We relax, hang out and play volleyball, then we go to someone’s house and have barbecue. It is more or less an extended family.
I learned from a very young age that injuries are part of the business. When jockeys get hurt, they can be out a week or six months. In 1990, my father was the jockey on Unbridled, but he got injured and couldn’t ride him when he won the Kentucky Derby.
I was too young to remember Unbridled, but my father never let what happened become a negative. He told us you have to keep pushing forward to do better, that hopefully you get another shot to get a horse like that. Obviously, he proved the truth of that by his example.
As a valet, I wouldn’t say I have anything to do with a jockey winning, but you make sure that saddle he uses to ride a $150,000 race has the proper equipment on it. You want to make sure the saddle isn’t going to have an iron fall out or a billet break (the billets are the straps attaching to the girth to anchor the saddle). If it isn’t done properly, the saddle can slip and a jockey can fall and be severely hurt.
From being around horse racing, I’ve learned there are jobs everywhere. You just have to work for it, and what you learn can set you up for your career. If I become a trainer, but it doesn’t work out and a track needs a valet, I’ve got that skill. Or if this doesn’t work out, I know how to groom a horse or be a hotwalker. The more you know in this sport, the more likely you are to be successful.
I learn something new on the job every day. I’m always learning from the more experienced valets in the room. Mr. Eddie Mirabona has been here a long time and taught me a lot. William Newkirk and Timmy O’Connor have been very helpful with their suggestions, and Paico is very good at cleaning tack and knowing what to use on a saddle so it won’t be too slippery. If anyone gets in a jam, someone is there to help out.
I usually get to the room by 10 a.m. and check my riders’ equipment. If they have broken goggles, or if a saddle or stirrup is broken, I let them know it’s time to order more or that it’s not safe. You set their helmet up, make sure they have the right silks going out and clean their boots. I also provide other things like Red Bull, Gatorade, Coke or water, candy to snack on after a race or chewing gum.
All jockeys have their own preferences when it comes to goggles. In a turf race, some jockeys want only one clear pair and one dark pair. For a sprint race, they might want two clear and one dark, or three clear and one dark for a route race. You just have to remember what each rider likes. Luis Garcia likes two clear pairs and one dark for a turf race; he likes that extra protection if a chunk of turf hits him.
Probably my most embarrassing moment came on my first day last season, when I switched the silks and the helmet covers for two of my riders, Luis Garcia and Freddie Lenclud. Both of their trainers were standing by the door, and when they came out the trainers both said ‘Why are you wearing my silks?’ Luis and Freddie came back in and I started switching everything off them. I was lucky it was a turf race and I didn’t have to add too many goggles.
Those guys were just laughing at me. They are pretty easy to work with. Jockeys are very good to work with – they are not prima donnas.
Jockeys go into slumps like any athlete, so you always have to keep your riders positive. When Luis Garcia was here, he would ask me to watch a replay with him and say ‘What do you think?’ I might tell him, ‘You should have gone this way’ or done something differently.
Basically, all the riders in our corner of the room will help each other out. You really don’t want a lot of negativity in the corner because then everyone gets grumpy.
I graduated from Cypress Bay High School in Weston and attended Broward Community College for a year, but it was too boring. I was also working at a restaurant and had the same schedule every day.
What it really came down to was, I was missing the horses. The racetrack life is fast-paced, it’s action all the time. There is always something going on.
I started working for trainer Kelly Breen when I was 14. I started as a hot walker and grooming horses, then he asked me to be his foreman. This was before he won the Belmont with Ruler On Ice, but he had a lot of nice horses then like Bold Union, West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain. He also took me to the Keeneland sales, and it was great experience seeing how that worked.
The past couple of summers, I’ve worked for Jane Cibelli at Monmouth. She is very one-on-one with her horses and I’ve learned a lot being around her. I help with the tack and equipment, setting up the feed, making sure every horse gets their supplements. I’ve actually worked for Kelly and Jane when they won meet titles, which is very cool.
My grandmother, Judy Sessa, is probably one of my best friends. She always looks for the best in people and encourages you to do your best and strive for your goals. When I was younger, she told me if you don’t take your shot at doing something in life, you’ll never be able to live with yourself. She has always pushed me to do what I want, and I know she was very happy when I was working for Kelly and Jane.
I would like to take a shot as a trainer, but that is down the road. Being a valet is a great job. As a young person, I’m fortunate to have my family supporting me from home and my racetrack family teaching me what it takes.
Looking for a unique way to entertain clients? Want to surprise Mom and Dad on their anniversary? Or is it simply time to go for the gusto with a couple dozen of your best friends? No matter the occasion, Nicole McGill, Special Events Director, is here to help groups large and small plan an afternoon of non-stop excitement revolving around Thoroughbred racing. The University of South Florida graduate has been the track’s Special Events Director since answering a newspaper advertisement 11 years ago. McGill and assistant Denise Shaffer organize and execute events and interface with other track departments to ensure your visit is one that will be fondly remembered.In recent years, McGill has promoted Tampa Bay Downs to become a prime wedding location. She contracts the event, organizes the setup (DJ, cake delivery, photographer, florist, officiant and decorating crew), orchestrates the wedding procession and choreographs the steps to saying ‘I Do.’ Prior to arriving at Tampa Bay Downs, McGill worked 17 years for Busch Entertainment Corporation, where her late father, Rick Mank, was a purchasing manager for 25 years. McGill has two children: Amanda, 16, and Anthony, 14.
I’m a big believer that first impressions are very important. I’m proud to receive this trait from my father because he was very outgoing and always extended his hand to greet people when he met someone new. My mom, who was the head nurse in the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital, is more of a laid-back, down-to-earth person who gets along with everybody, and she passed that along to me.
With Busch Gardens, I started with the operations department and moved my way up to special events, including radio remotes, film shoots, weddings, corporate events, holiday parties and private events. My responsibilities included contracting and implementing the entire event. From that experience, I knew in my heart that working in the hospitality industry would challenge me the way I wanted to be challenged.
I was a little anxious about coming into the racetrack environment, but I knew my field and felt absolutely confident I was the right person for the job. I thought I could pick up what I needed to know on the horse racing end. I’m not an expert, but I’ve learned a lot and with the strong support of my co-workers, I’ve expanded my horse racing knowledge.
My favorite part of the job at Tampa Bay Downs is working with people. Every event is different, and you never know what to expect. You have to be spontaneous and able to adapt to changes that might occur and different personalities.
In order to put together an event, it is important to meet the expectations of your guests and focus on the challenges you face every day while staying organized and structured. At Tampa Bay Downs, about 75 percent of our groups are repeat customers or spin-offs, which is wonderful because it tells us we’re helping to provide people a rich, rewarding experience they will remember for years to come.
Our daily groups range from large exhibitions to corporate retreats and everything in between. We host holiday parties, educational school events, senior outings, birthdays, tour and travel agencies, anniversary and bachelor/bachelorette parties, and weddings.
During the year, Margo Flynn, Vice President of Marketing, and I travel to trade shows and speak to different community groups to promote Tampa Bay Downs group specials. There are so many other aspects of this job besides the groups at the track – night parties, attending trade shows and wedding shows, and luncheons where I meet with vendors such as DJ’s, florists, videographers, etc. These are the kind of tools and resources I can use to help people plan their events.
Kim Harvey, Administrative Assistant, and I go to the gate every race day to greet the groups and assist them to their reserved area. Denise Shaffer helps groups in all of our venues with questions they may have during their stay. While Denise meets each group in the winner’s circle for their race presentation and photo opportunity, I handle the daily operations of scheduling, box seat sales, event reservations, financial commitment of each event and preparing for the next day’s events.
Although my title is ‘Special Events Director,’ it takes a team to put together a successful event. I work with many of our departments from admissions, food service and commissary, housekeeping, maintenance, mutuels, publicity and security to ensure the event will run smoothly down to the smallest detail. Everyone here is willing to make it happen, and it is nice to have that kind of rapport with my co-workers.
I feel it is necessary to have a positive outlook in order to work with all the different personalities because there are always special requests and last-minute details that need to be made.
This is our second season promoting Tampa Bay Downs in the Perfect Wedding Guide magazine, which is also an online service. Two other Web sites we promote are The Knot and the WeddingWire. We’ve booked eight weddings to date and have scheduled several for 2013. It is a part of our business that has really blossomed! Weddings, as well as corporate parties, are important avenues we actively pursue.
We offer a lot of different wedding packages to give couples the flexibility they need in planning. If they don’t see something they want on the dinner menu, our chefs are willing to be adaptable. And our weddings are definitely priced at a point that is affordable to all.
As the event planner, I ensure the bride, wedding party and the family have what they need from start to finish. The timing of the event is crucial, as many of the ceremonies are held in our newly renovated garden area and the reception in our Skye Terrace dining room.
I take a lot of pride in our weddings. Not only do I organize the special day, I ensure the bride and family have what they need from start to finish. Naturally, I am very happy for the couples who get married here, but I don’t get emotional during the ceremony because I want to be professional and strong for the bride.
I know it is very sentimental for the families and I just want to make sure what we do meets their expectations. But I do grow close to them during the planning and preparation, and if I see them outside of the track, I’ll stop and talk.
Both of my children, Amanda and Anthony, help me wherever possible with a lot of my events. I’ll take a lot of the projects home, and they’ll jump right in to lend a hand. I think they see how I interact with people and how I introduce myself and they know that developing strong social skills is very important.
Actually, sometimes I think they are the ones setting the example for me. Amanda is in the ROTC program at her high school and volunteers during the summer at the YMCA. Anthony, who is in middle school, is in the young Marines program and frequently volunteers at Lifepath Hospice Thrift Store.
With the kind of support I receive from them at home and from everyone here at the racetrack, I feel very blessed.
They have been called 'the cowboys of horse racing.' Certainly, their skills trace to an earlier era, when proficiency with horses was required to put food on the family table. No racetrack can operate without the hard-earned skills of the starter and his assistants, who are responsible for loading each horse into the gate. Some enter as gracefully as a ballerina stepping on stage; others need a blindfold or the full force of two men pushing from behind. And for the crew members who accompany a nervous animal inside the 8-foot long by 2.5-foot wide gate stall, getting out of there every race with no more than sore joints or a bruised leg is an accomplishment. To avoid worse, the crew subjects each horse to extensive gate training before they are approved to race. But horses are claustrophobic by nature, and the men who work with them around the gate must accept the risks. Tampa Bay Downs is fortunate to have the services of Ron Dill – now in his 13th season as the track's starter – and his crew. Dill, 53, grew up around horses; his late father Russell Dill was a trainer at Fairmount Park and Cahokia Downs in Illinois. A Lafayette, La. native, Ron has been married to Micky, an assistant store manager, for nine years. His brother Scott was a jockey for a short time and is now a valet at Fairmount Park, and their sister Lori is an assistant trainer for Jerry Hammond in Illinois. Their mother, Louise, still lives in Collinsville, Ill. When the current Tampa Bay Downs meeting ends, Dill and most of his crew members will head to Erie, Pa. for the Presque Isle Downs meeting, where Dill has been the starter the past three seasons.
People may call us the unsung heroes of the racetrack, but I don't think any of us look at it that way. We know what our job is, we do it the same way every day and we always keep our focus on safety – not only our own, but that of the jockeys and the horses. As long as we follow the right procedures and remember that every horse is different, we're confident in our ability to get the job done.
A few years back, ESPN called being an assistant starter 'the most dangerous job in sports.' That may be so, but if you take any time to think about that, you can't do the job. Everything moves too quickly once the horses start loading for a race. At that point, all the preparations we've done in the mornings come into play.
That doesn't mean a horse is going to act the same way every time, not with the excitement of a race and thousands of fans making noise. But at least we know we've covered our bases and can react when the unexpected happens – which is more often than not. The main thing for us, asa crew, is to get them to stand and get them out of there as quick as we can. There will be one left once in a while, if a horse throws its head or something. It does happen.
We all pretty much grew up around horses. I was born in Lafayette – (jockeys) Mark Guidry, Shane Sellers and I are real good friends – but my family moved to Collinsville when I was a little-bitty kid. My dad was an assistant trainer there before he went out on his own.
From the time I was 8 or 9, I was always at the barn. I started by cleaning stalls and walking horses, then I got to ponying horses, then galloping. When I was 19, my dad asked me if I wanted a job on the starting gate. I said yeah, I'll try it. I've worked on the gate ever since.
It's kind of hard to describe what it's like to work with race horses to the average fan who sees how beautiful it looks and how spectacular a sport racing can be. I always loved it, but I always looked at it as work, too.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a jockey like my brother Scott, but my weight and size wouldn't allow that to happen. So I settled for just being around the horses and helping my dad. George Dill, my uncle, was also a trainer. Our whole family was in the horse business.
Without question, my dad was the most influential person in my life. He'd get me up at 4:30 in the morning, even on weekends, and say 'C'mon, it's time to go to the barn.' He taught me my work ethic and to never be late for your job, and I have never been late.
I had a pretty easy time getting hired on the gate because I'd been around horses so long. Even so, you learn in a hurry that there is no one to cry to when something goes wrong. Guys will bust on you when you're starting out – like, if you have a horse flip on you, they'll say 'You'll know what to do next time, won't you?' Well, maybe, maybe not. It all depends on the horse. But it's all good-natured, because we're on the same page.
Like everybody else, I started out by schooling horses, getting them used to the gate. If you've ever heard the saying 'Hurry up and wait,' it sure applies to schooling. The first step is just showing them the gate, which can be pretty intimidating for a 2-year-old just off the farm. Next we'll walk them through a few times with a rider, then we'll put them in there and open the front doors and let them walk out.
They'll pick it up more and more as they go along until we get ready to break them from the gate. The young horses, we just take our time with them and teach them what they are supposed to do. The horse will let you know when it's ready. If it is coming out slow, we might tell the rider 'hustle him, pick him up a little more.' I don't school my horses without a rider – they have to have them in the afternoons.
We school six days a week here, and we were schooling 70 or 80 a morning earlier in the meet. It has slowed down now to maybe 40 or 50, but there is still a lot of preparation and bookwork after that. I keep records on every horse, so we know if it needs a handler or if it's a tail horse or whatever the case might be. A few trainers will have their horses come up and stand by the gate, just to get them used to that environment.
If a horse needs to be handled in the gate, it usually means the horse has gone through the front doors, or it can be a little ratty in there. The assistant has to stay with him and keep him as calm as he can. If one of my guys sees a horse he thinks needs to be handled the next time it runs, I'll mark it in my program and put it in the book after the races.
A tail horse is one that needs its tail lifted over its back to keep it from rearing up or going all the way over. Some horses won't go in without a blindfold, and some you have to back in from in front of the gate. Obviously, these are traits we need to know before the race, which is where all our schooling pays off.
It goes without saying this is a dangerous profession. Each of our guys is required to wear a flak jacket, but that isn't always enough protection. A good friend of mine, Leon Reed, was killed six or seven years ago at Finger Lakes in New York when a horse he was helping to load kicked him in the chest. He'd been working on the gate pretty much his whole life. I had worked with him here at Tampa Bay Downs when we were both assistants, so it really hit close to home. He was a young guy (47) and had a wife.
I’m fortunate to have a very good, experienced crew. I carry 12 guys; you always want more, but the majority of these guys have been with me eight or nine years and understand what it takes. Anthony Ranno drives the tractor that pulls the gate into position and makes sure it is greased and the springs are in working order. Denny Knack has worked with me since before I became the head starter.
When we get a new guy, I just tell him to watch the guys who have been doing it a long time and they'll teach you. They take the new guys under their wing, show them how to stand in there, which is a knack in itself. Those pontoons (ledges) inside the gate are only three inches wide. Guys are always getting hit when the horses leave the gate, but a lot of them know how to get their legs out of the way.
The gate runs off two 12-volt batteries; when I push the button, it releases the magnets that hold the gate shut and signals the horses and riders the race has begun. The energy you feel inside the gate is incredible. I don't know what you would compare it to, but from my position a few yards in front of the gate, it drowns out everything else no matter how loud the crowd is yelling.
When I'm holding the button, I don't listen to the riders. I listen to my men. I watch them and what they are doing. If they're hollering, I know to just hold up for another second and see what is going on. I watch every horse, but I go by what my men are telling me. Then, as long as the horses are all standing good and looking down the racetrack, I take it.
And if nobody notices us, we know we've done a pretty good job.
Dr. Kristen Pastir says she knew she would be a large-animal veterinarian when she was born. It's hard to tell if she is joking. The first-year Tampa Bay Downs Association Veterinarian, who considers herself an advocate for the track's Thoroughbred population, rode hunter-jumpers from an early age and found herself more comfortable around them than most people. Determined to answer her calling, Pastir attended the pre-veterinary medicine animal program at the University of New Hampshire and graduated from Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. After completing an internship at New England Equine in Dover, N.H., she opened her private practice, Granite Glen Equine in Groton, N.Y., focusing on sport horses. Pastir joined the New York Racing Association as an Associate Examining Veterinarian in 2009, working meetings at each of the NYRA's tracks -- Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. At Tampa Bay Downs, she works in concert with Dr. Robert M. Calley, inspecting each day's entries, conducting random pre-race testing for illegal substances and handling emergencies as they arise. The 29-year-old Pastir is the founder of an adoption chapter called Two Turns Thoroughbreds, which has found new homes for 20 horses, many of which she retrained before adoption. She owns two retired Thoroughbreds, Proud Escapade and Desert Scents, a Dutch Warmblood named Denny and a dog, Tyler.
I really think some people are born bonding more to animals than people. That certainly was the case with me. Growing up, I felt more comfortable telling things to my German shepherds, Ginger and Heidi. A lot of people think my job is hard because horses can't tell you what is wrong, but if you're in tune with them you can tell. It's not as much of a mystery as you might think.
Someone can be very book-smart, but that doesn't mean you're a good vet. A lot of what we do is cut-and-dry – they are either lame or they're not – but at the same time it is a feeling, knowing when a horse is sore or when it is just stiff. I believe some people have the knack of reading them. For me, it is truly a calling.
My feeling about being with horses is really the same now as it was when I was riding as a young girl. We didn't own horses – I rode at a public stable – so I only got so much time with them, and I wanted to make that time the best I possibly could. Not all of them had the best lives, but I believed I could be good for them for that hour or three hours I was with them, whether it was on a trail ride or some other activity.
On race days, Dr. Calley and I usually begin between 7-8 a.m. by examining the horses that are entered that day. He and I split the barn area, and we switch every other week, which has enabled both of us to get to know the entire horse population and to have a fresh set of eyes looking at every horse.
Each horse gets the same exam, whether it is a stakes horses that just shipped in or a $5,000 claiming horse we've seen a half-dozen times. The stakes horses do make it fun, because they are true professional athletes. Regardless, I don't look at who the trainer is or if the horse is the favorite. What it comes down to is this: Is the horse sore or not? That's all that matters when it comes to deciding if it is fit to compete that day.
All in all, the exam is fairly superficial, but we still can tell a lot. We palpate (feel) the front legs, then we pick up each leg in flexion and palpate the joints, see if there is any change in fluids. Generally, we don't palpate the back legs unless we feel we have a reason. We keep a record on every horse that runs, so if a horse has joint fluid and is a little stiff, that is concerning. We also check for heat or swelling and see if the horse feels any pain on palpation. Horses are symmetrical, so if you feel down one leg and the horse has a big tendon and the other leg is not like that, you know 'OK, this is a true problem.’
The biggest part of the exam is watching them jog. Many horses in this population are older and run frequently, and a lot of them need warming up to feel good and feel like running. I'm sensitive to that, because I'm a runner and I need warming up. There is a huge difference between a horse being stiff and being sore, and that is part of the art of what I do – knowing the difference.
Most trainers strive to do the right thing by their horses. But I've heard it said 'This horse has a funny way of going.' I watch it jog and I can see it's not a funny way of going, it's lameness. There are ways a layman can tell. Sometimes, when the painful limb hits the ground, the horse's head goes up – we call that 'On the nod' – signifying the limb is really sore.
In other cases, a horse may be stiff – we call that 'crabby' – but I can tell watching it that it is not hurting and just needs to warm up and stretch a bit. For me, that part of the exam is an art. Often, it is the way they look at me that tells me how they are feeling. I can sense that they are not hurting, and they'll go out and look absolutely pristine. They just needed to warm up and stretch a little bit.
One disadvantage of the pre-race exam at any track is that these horses are, literally, athletes, but all we do is pull them out of their stalls and make them jog a short distance within a narrow shed row with a usually uneven surface. When you are dealing with 90 or more exams a day, that is the reality of the situation. So if I am about to scratch a horse but I'm not sure if it is the shed row or not, we'll take the horse on the pavement or the grass to jog more extensively.
During the races, either Dr. Calley or I am on the track, while the other one does the blood-gas testing for 'milkshaking,' where unscrupulous trainers buffer the blood to give their horse more endurance. A random drawing is held beforehand to determine which horses will be tested, and it is done 45 minutes or an hour out from post time. All graded stakes horses are tested.
Not only is milkshaking illegal, it's harmful because you're pushing the horse beyond its physical limitations. Most breakdowns occur when the muscles and ligaments have become fatigued and can no longer support the skeletal structures. When a horse that has been 'milkshaked' reaches the stretch and should be tired, but it's not, that can cause undue stress on the rest of their body. And by messing with a horse's blood pH, you can kill them. That is why milkshaking is not safe and it's not right and why testing is necessary.
Our job on the frontside is to watch them in the paddock. If a horse flips and hits its head, and we can't discern how serious the damage is, it has to be scratched. Horses do silly things, and our job on the track is to make sure everybody stays safe. We're also there for emergency coverage if a horse comes back sore or breaks down. Heat stroke can also be an issue, especially this time of year. If a horse bleeds from the nostrils excessively and it looks a little wobbly, we'll ask that it be given a ride back to their barn.
A guy at Tampa Bay Downs jokingly calls me 'Cornell' after Robert Pattinson's character in the movie 'Water for Elephants.' In the flick, the character leaves the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to join the circus, only to discover his ideals and principles regarding the treatment of animals clash with the circus owner's view that 'the show must go on' no matter what.
I don't think I was as naïve as that character when I got to NYRA! But I have to admit, working at the track has been an eye-opening experience. When I started in New York, I was told "Your job is not to be the (horsemen's) friend. It is to take care of the horses."
I have found that many people on the backside really do love their horses. But this is a business. There are tons of little tricks to get a horse past the exam, but for us, that is the benefit of having a lot of experience under your belt. When I was in New York, trainers figured out quickly I was strict. A horse can always run another day. They have to be at a certain threshold for me to pass them.
I think for me the biggest disillusionment at the racetrack was meeting some very nice people who I found didn't care that much about the horse or didn't know enough to make good decisions. They are very few and far between, but they are there. I learned I had to put a wall up. I can be friendly, but whether I am friends with someone or not, it's not going to make a difference in my decisions.
I'm not here to be friends with the horsemen. I'm here to look out for the horses and be their voice.
When a horse breaks down, we are the last ones with them. We're the ones who have to look them in the eye and kind of take what every human has done to that horse in its life and take responsibility for it. Every horse I have put down plays over and over and over again in my head, and I remember every single one.
So even if things were done to cover up and get them past us, we are the ones who let them go out there. I take it very seriously and I take it to heart, because the only reason I am here is that I love horses.
This can be a scary job because horses are unpredictable. They will beat you up. My right index finger will never be the same; it was bitten doing a dentistry procedure. The most serious I've ever been hurt was last spring at my private practice in New York, when I was doing a reproductive ultrasound on a mare and I got double-barreled – I went to lift her tail to wrap it, and she fired out with both hind legs and sent me flying. She was sedated, too!
I was unconscious for a while. She left a big horseshoe imprint on my side. That was a very scary day. You have to give them a little leeway because they have so little control over their lives, but she was just a mean animal.
I couldn't walk for a while, but I went back in a few days and ultrasounded her, and she was in foal. I told the owners "Good luck, but I'm not coming back to take care of the foal!"
My motivation to start Two Turns Thoroughbreds was to find an outlet for those horses that didn't want to run any more and had no place to go. It is similar to TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) – the goal is to retrain race horses for a second career. We've already adopted out 20, many of which I retrained and found homes for myself. It's been fun, and it's good for me because I knew them in New York. I mostly retrain horses for hunter-jumper careers, because that was my discipline as a girl.
Some people think Thoroughbreds are wild and crazy when they get off the track, but most are not hard to retrain. They get ridden every day as race horses. You just have to translate what they know from here into what riding people use as cues.
Thoroughbreds are incredibly honest, they want to please and they can do anything. And most of them are kids' horses, because they no longer want to run so kids can tool around on them, take them over little jumps and on trail rides, and they're happy.
One of my personal horses, Proud Escapade, used to run at Tampa Bay Downs. He won five races but only earned $42,000, and by the time he was 4 years old he was 'old' and 'done' as a race horse because he was no longer sound for racing. But to the rest of the horse world, he was a baby. He's 7 now, lives on a farm in New York and is doing fine. Like so many ex-race horses, he has great potential for a productive career.
I'll be going from here to Colonial Downs in Virginia as an Association Veterinarian, then I'm probably going to Saratoga to do private practice. It's a really tough circuit to break into because it's big trainers and big horses and all the best vets in the world are there, but I figure if I'm going to go somewhere and not know if I am going to make money, it might as well be Saratoga.
People I know ask, 'How can you still love racing?' and I always think of the first time I saw
run in the 2010 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont. He was coming down the lane and digging in, and Musket Man came up on his side, and
just found more. And I thought, 'This is what they've been bred for.'
I guess that is the addiction for me to keep coming back. The negative aspects will not erode my principles and my standards. I do have days when I think I am getting jaded, and then you hang out with the horses and think, 'This is why I'm here. This is their life.' And nothing will ever change that.
When jockey Rosemary Homeister, Jr. enters the winner’s circle after a race, she looks skyward and blows a kiss to her late grandparents, Frank and Phyllis Sangi. After posing for pictures, she celebrates with the winning connections, greets the race sponsors and signs autographs for anyone who asks. Then, on her return to the jockeys’ room, she hugs and high-fives fans lining the rail to congratulate her. It barely leaves time to prepare for the next race, but Homeister’s enthusiasm is a tonic for a sport struggling to keep its place in a rapidly evolving landscape.
The second-winningest female jockey in history, behind Hall of Famer Julie Krone, Homeister is building a case for her eventual inclusion in horse racing’s shrine. She is 17 victories shy of the 2,500 mark. Her numerous accomplishments include being the first woman to win the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, in 1992; induction into two Thoroughbred racing Halls of Fame (Calder Race Course and Puerto Rico, where she was the first woman to win the Clasico de Caribe on a filly named Alexia out of Panama); riding in the 2003 Kentucky Derby on Supah Blitz (13th); and finishing second in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Marathon for Jonathan Sheppard on Cloudy’s Knight. In addition, she has been leading rider at the Tropical at Calder meet, Hialeah and Colonial Downs.
More remarkably, she has returned to top form after giving birth on Aug. 21, 2011 to the love of her life, daughter Victoria Rose. Homeister – who won Tampa Bay Downs’ opening-day Lightning City Stakes aboard Jenny’s So Great for Trainer Jason Servis – is fourth in the current Tampa Bay Downs standings with 44 victories. With fellow jockey Irwin Rosendo, Victoria Rose’s father, the 39-year-old Homeister is discovering the joys of parenthood while proving women athletes can compete at a world-class level after having a child.
After the races are over my main focus is getting home to see Victoria Rose. As soon as I pick her up and hold her in my arms, nothing else matters. I’m just happy I had a safe day and am able to spend the rest of the night with her. When she smiles, it clears my mind and I know tomorrow is going to be a great day again.
Back-tracking, getting pregnant was not in any future plans or at least not yet. When I woke up one morning feeling nauseous I thought I was getting the flu. To my disbelief I was pregnant. I woke Irwin up at 4:30 a.m. to tell him. He flew out of the bed so fast, he almost knocked me over. He was so happy and excited but then realized I was in total shock and I just stood there with a blank stare.
I knew in my heart it was a blessing, but I just wasn’t prepared or ready for such a drastic change in my life. My focus was on my future plans for the summer, riding in Kentucky. I felt I was at the height of my career again; I had been fourth-leading rider at Churchill Downs the previous fall meet and wanted to continue my success there. Everything just seemed to halt and I was confused and scared.
I went through an emotional roller coaster during my pregnancy. Fortunately, Irwin gave me a lot of support and was always there for me. Hormonally, I was completely out of whack – happy, sad, not knowing what to expect. I refused to go to the track because I didn’t want anybody to see me fat. I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy, and at times I felt embarrassed, in a sense.
It took time to adjust to all the changes my body was going through but I did it and am happy that it happened. The best part of my pregnancy was the delivery. I was at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa, and I had the best doctor and nurse. They walked me through everything and made me feel comfortable. When I finally pushed out my little blessing, after 9 ½ hours, nothing else mattered in my life but her. She was so tiny and precious.
Every day Victoria does something new. She keeps growing and learning so fast. At just 7 months she is saying “Ma-ma and Pa-pa.” I know I sound like a typical awestruck mother, but just to see her push herself up or roll over on her back seems like a miracle.
When she gets a little older, she is going to know she has two parents who adore her and will do anything for her. I just want her to always be healthy and happy. My friends and family tell me “There is no rulebook” to raising a child, and it is so true. Instinctually, I know what is good for her.
The biggest challenge I faced after my pregnancy was losing all the weight I gained – all 50 pounds of it. A week after I had Victoria, I hired a personal trainer to help me lose the weight the right way by helping me gain my strength while I was losing weight. I had no strength and my balance was totally off.
It was a very frustrating two weeks, but after going three times a week for 30-minute sessions I began to feel better and started to notice the change in my body. Losing weight is very frustrating. But I kept my focus, changed my diet and continued to work out.
I got a call from trainer Eric Reed (Victoria’s godfather), who told me that he and his wife Kay wanted me to come to Kentucky to start getting on horses at Keeneland and at their farm for them. They wanted to help me get fit so that I could start riding for them again.
I was so excited because I knew this was the only way to get back into shape quickly and be ready to ride by the Tampa Bay Downs meeting in December. I got on 3-to-6 horses a day for the next month and little by little, the weight started to come off. I was getting anxious to ride and Eric had started to name me on horses.
I was down to about 118 pounds by the end of October. I rode my first race on Nov. 9 at the Churchill Downs meeting for Eric and Kay and finished fifth. The next day I rode another horse for them, Eden Star, and won. It was the most exciting moment for me because of all that I had accomplished in a short amount of time to get to that point. I am so grateful to them for giving me this opportunity.
On top of everything, Eric Reed’s mother and father would watch Victoria Rose for me and Irwin while we worked for about four hours in the morning. We would then pick her up and spend the rest of the day with her. One of the biggest things when you’re a working parent is finding the right babysitter, and we were blessed to have Eric Reed’s parents help us in Kentucky.
Now, we have my friend Brenda Jones. She sings to her, teaches her shapes and colors and speaks to her in English and Spanish. Brenda adores Victoria. She comes to my house at 6 a.m. and stays until I get done racing in the late afternoon. I can stay focused on my work and know that Victoria is in good hands.
I’ve been a jockey for the past 20 years now, and a few years ago I had it in my mind I would retire when I turned 40 and maybe go back to doing real estate. But when horse racing is in your blood, you can’t get away from it. I love to be with horses, I love to compete and I love the fans.
Being a jockey is a continuous learning process. You’re always trying to perfect your style and devising new strategies to win, even with a horse you have ridden on a consistent basis. It’s mentally and physically challenging because you have the instructions from the trainer, you are trying to get to know your horse in the seven-minute post parade and you are deciding what you’ll do if plan A doesn’t work out.
Being a professional jockey takes total focus. You can’t be half-fit or ride half-ass. You are either full-force, competitive, work hard every day and want to win, or you might as well do something else. There are too many decisions and quick reactions to be made in any given race.
Riding the turf is very strategic – knowing what position I want to be in, who else is going to try to get there, and who is going to get in my way or be stopping in front of me. The main thing is getting good position the first sixteenth of a mile. If I’m on a speed horse, we’re going to go, but you still have to get yourself in position or you’re going to get swallowed up and run the risk of losing your position.
Down the backside, unless I’m in front, I’m constantly looking to see who might be stopping because you don’t want to get blocked. You want to save ground, but if the rail isn’t open you’ve got to start weaving out and finding room. It’s a constant process of quick thinking and quick actions. Riding the turf is all about making the right moves and the right decisions in a split-second and hoping your horse will do what you ask of him.
When I think about all the things I love about horse racing, I can’t say enough about the fans. I appreciate them appreciating our business. I want them to feel the excitement I feel when I win a race.
I give high-fives to all little kids, sign autographs and take pictures with the fans. It gives them a little piece of the action and excitement. When the meeting here ends, my plans are to go to Chicago to ride at Arlington Park for the summer.
My mother, Rosemary Homeister, Sr., is a trainer in south Florida at Calder Race Course. She has always been my No. 1 fan and biggest supporter. I never would have made it this far without her. Thanks, Mom!
I look at my life as a total blessing. I’m so grateful to be able to do what I am passionate about and I want owners, trainers and the fans to know how determined I am to win and how passionate I am about this game. And if I don’t win this race, I am going to try and win the next race and every race after that!