Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ricardo Feliciano, Jockey

For the Feliciano family, an otherwise run-of-the-mill allowance race at Thistledown outside Cleveland in August of 1997 proved to be a symbolic passing of the torch. Young Ricardo – who had ridden his first winner only a few weeks earlier and would celebrate his 21st birthday the following day – was on a confirmed closer named Call Me Marfa. His father Benny Feliciano, a past Tampa Bay Downs riding champion with more than 2,600 career victories at the time, rode Go Kaz. Adding to the family drama was the fact Go Kaz, an Ohio-bred gelding, was trained by Miguel Feliciano, Benny’s older brother and Ricardo’s uncle. Ricardo kept Call Me Marfa at the rear of the field early, asked for his best approaching the stretch and found a seam between horses, beating his father to the wire in the final jump. Although Benny rode his share of winners for the next couple of years before joining Miguel in the training ranks, it was time for Ricardo to carry on the family heritage. With more than 1,700 victories, mount earnings of $23.4 million and a reputation as one of the best gate riders in the business, Ricardo has rewarded his father and uncle – both trainers at Tampa Bay Downs – for their faith in his ability to achieve his lifelong dream. Ricardo, who has competed here the past 15 years and is based at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., in the summer, lives in the Cleveland area with his wife Lady and their sons Benny, 3, and Armani, soon to be 1. Ricardo’s mother Millie and sister Carmen work in a doctor’s office in Cleveland. Currently just outside the top 10 jockeys locally with 18 victories after a slow start, Ricardo, now 37, shares his passion for his calling and the horses in this installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” series of profiles.

I WAS PROBABLY 5 OR 6 WHEN I FIRST GOT THE FEVER of wanting to put on the pants and boots, get on a horse and do the same thing as my dad. Having already gone through it himself, he would have preferred seeing me go to college and do something more stable than being a jockey. But he knew how badly I wanted it, so he backed me 100 percent. I rode my first race at Classic Mile Park in Ocala when I was 11; it was just down the stretch for young kids, part of a country day at the races. I rode against three other horses and finished third, and it was very cool. I know my dad had a ball, too, because that was his little boy out there on a horse.

BY THAT TIME, I ALREADY KNEW I HAD NO DESIRE TO GO TO COLLEGE, so my father started taking me to my uncle’s barn during the summer. I was working with my uncle’s horses, but my dad would be showing me what to do – how to put on bandages, how to tack up a horse, cleaning the stalls. He taught me everything from the ground up, and I could barely wait until I graduated high school (Bedford High in Ohio) to go to the racetrack.

THE EDUCATION OF RICARDO FELICIANO – I guess you would call it my apprenticeship, before I became an apprentice jockey – wasn’t over. I got up in the mornings to gallop horses for my uncle and other trainers, then I worked as a valet at Thistledown for three years while I was learning to be a jockey. A valet is the guy who makes sure a rider’s tack and boots are clean, hangs up their silks for each race, organizes their equipment and provides their supplies and accessories. My dad was good friends with all those riders, and a few of them took me under their wing: guys like Julio Felix, Heriberto Rivera, Jr., and the late Michael Rowland.

THAT WAS EVERY YOUNG KID’S DREAM: TO BE IN THE ROOM with guys who are doing what you want to do. You get to watch all the races, and you hear every story from every jock after a race, all raw and uncensored, right there. I learned there are no shortcuts to success, even for the best jockeys. I saw a lot of stuff and learned a lot those three years, and by the time I started riding, I was ready.

IT’S JUST THAT ADRENALINE RUSH, MAN – the fact you cross the wire first against a group of them, and you feel like you’re part of that. You carry that horse home; it’s a feeling you can’t explain unless you do it. Money is another thing I like about my job, of course, but you’ve got to win to make the money. I have a great passion for horses. I grew up with them all my life. I put a lot of trust into them. They have so much power, you know if they get it in their minds to do something, they’re going to do it, with or without you. I don’t think about that part too much. If you do, you might as well not even ride.

MY AGENT, PAULA BACON, ALSO HAS RONNIE ALLEN, JR.’S BOOK. Some people might say that’s like being the guy who hit behind Hank Aaron for the Braves, but I don’t look at it that way. Ronnie has so much business, he can’t ride every horse, and a lot of times I’ll end up riding one of his calls that may be the better horse in the race because he has to keep someone else happy. That works both ways too, but at this meeting especially, Ronnie has been an inspiration. When you see a guy his age cruising around the track whupping butt, you feel you can do it too. It’s cool to ride with guys with that kind of knowledge and experience and desire.

HORSE RACING CAN TAKE YOU TO A LOT OF DIFFERENT PLACES, and this year I’ve won races in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. One of the horses I won on, Town Hall, had been claimed last fall at Belmont. They like to use out-of-town riders, and I was paid to come in and ride. Jose Ferrer, Jose Lopez and Julio Felix were there, too, and Victor Lebron, who grew up in St. Croix, rides there. I think it’s easier because the fields are smaller, but when that gate opens a switch goes off, the adrenaline starts flowing and it is all business. They only race one day a month, and it is a huge festival. The people there have so much love for the sport.

MY DAD ALWAYS PUT IT IN MY HEAD THAT IF I WANTED TO BE A JOCKEY, I had to learn to save money for the slow times or when I was injured and couldn’t ride. I make most of my income up north, and it is so competitive here, with so many riders, that I have to tighten my belt and cut down my spending. I make enough here to pay the bills, keep my head above water and, hopefully, be able to come back next year after a good summer.

A LOT OF PEOPLE TELL ME I’M A STRONG GATE RIDER. I think I’m a good finisher, too; you can’t be one-dimensional and expect to win much. Races can be won or lost at the break, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time analyzing. When I rode in Chicago, E.T. Baird, who was one of the best speed riders in the country, helped me a lot coming out of the gate, because that wasn’t one of my strong points then. When I went to Mountaineer, that really peppered me up as far as enhancing my gate skills because it seems like everybody there sends their horse and you have to get good position early.

OBVIOUSLY, YOU WANT YOUR HORSE STANDING STRAIGHT and not moving around in the gate too much. I give my horses a lot of rein – don’t fuss with them or try to grab them or anything – and let them do it on their own. I try to let them get their feet under them and take it from there. A lot of jocks try to shove on them early, but I just let them do their thing and it usually seems to work out.

IT’S KIND OF FUNNY – MY DAD, WHO IS SMALL FOR A JOCKEY, always looks at me like I’m his little boy. Every now and then he nags at me like I’m still 10, to the point where I just shake my head and say ‘Yeah, dad, whatever.’ But the truth is, he’s my biggest hero. I’ve been blessed. The older I get, the more I realize how right he was when he told me all those little things. You don’t understand it until you get older and have kids yourself, and then it clicks and you realize why he stayed up all night wondering when you were coming home. I’m lucky I have a dad who showed me the ropes and kept me from taking the wrong path.

I’VE RIDDEN SOME REAL NICE HORSES FOR MY UNCLE MIGUEL – Pay the Man, a 10-year-old mare who has won 21 stakes and more than $1-million; Bernie Blue, who was still winning stakes as an 8-year-old; and Majestic Dinner, another multiple-stakes winner bred and owned by Dr. D.W. Frazier (Pyrite Stables), my uncle’s main client. Miguel has always been a soft-spoken person; I was fortunate to fall into that spot at the start of my career where he always had a string of more than 20 horses. He is a very good person to ride for, he never complains about anything and he has nice horses. That’s a heck of a trifecta and I feel pretty blessed about it.

I COULD SEE ONE OF MY SONS FOLLOWING IN MY FOOTSTEPS. It’s only natural for a little kid to want to do what daddy does. I feel the same way about it as my father did –I hope they’re going to take the brain route and go to school and try to find a more stable career than being a jockey. But if riding horses is what they want to do, I’ll back them up 100 percent, like my dad did with me.

ON OFF DAYS, I ENJOY FISHING IN THE CHANNELS AND JUST HANGING OUT with my kids and family. We have a house in Cleveland, but eventually I’d like to get a little farm where we can have some animals, like the farm my dad used to have in Ohio. I’m pretty laid-back – I’m not one of these adventurous guys who like to do all sorts of crazy stuff. To me, a good day when I’m not riding is throwing some food on the barbecue grill and kicking back.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Vanessa Nye, Owner

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, criminal defense attorney Vanessa Nye unwinds from a high-energy workday in the company of her 9-year-old gelding, Diamond Steal, at nearby Half Pass Stables. Nye – who raced him during his 5, 6 and 7-year-old seasons – takes riding lessons on Diamond Steal, one of five Thoroughbreds she has campaigned under her Voodoomon Racing banner. Two of the others are active: Spanish Ambassador, an 8-year-old mare who won an allowance/optional claiming sprint at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 13, and Doimakeyahappy, a 5-year-old gelding who was second here on March 1 in a 1-mile turf allowance. Nye also owns 8-year-old Spanish Comedy (pictured above), who broke her maiden in 2010 at Tampa Bay Downs under jockey Daniel Centeno; the mare resides at her birthplace at the Webster Training Center near Ocala while Nye looks for a stallion to breed her to. Another successful Nye charge was Supah Soup, a now-10-year-old gelding she raced for four seasons, winning six times from 41 starts with eight seconds and eight thirds. Although retired from racing, Supah Soup still is active at Tampa Bay Downs, and within that story resides the essence of Nye as an owner. The gray son of 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, out of Grade I winner Supah Gem, is a pony horse during the races, under the care of Nye’s close friend Genevieve Londono. “I was fortunate to find a second career for him,” Nye said. “He has a job escorting racehorses out in the afternoons, and I get to see him six or seven months out of the year.” Four years ago, Supah Soup was part of a defining moment in Nye’s involvement as an owner that inspired her to take an active role in racehorse rescue, retirement and aftercare. A member of the board of directors of TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.), Nye speaks out in the latest installment of the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” blog.

I BELIEVE THAT RETIRING THESE HORSES PROPERLY, transitioning them into other careers and supporting the aftercare of these great animals is paramount for the racing industry’s future. I think for a long time, people assumed every Thoroughbred would be fine after they retired. In recent years, we’ve learned that isn’t always the case, and the issue is getting a lot more attention. None of us in the industry – breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys – would have the chance to enjoy this sport if it wasn’t for the horses. I think it falls on the industry as a whole, but specifically the owners, to have a plan.

MAY 28, 2009 SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE MOST HEARTWARMING days of my life, but it was tragic and bittersweet. I had two horses running in a starter allowance at Arlington in Chicago: my 7-year-old gelding Voodoomon, who won six races at Tampa Bay Downs, and Supah Soup. They were both in contention when Voodoomon broke down entering the stretch. Supah Soup won by a head, but Voodoomon’s injuries were so severe, he had to be euthanized. What a crazy twist of life and fate. It was a very emotional, heartbreaking day, but I became a stronger person and it made me more impassioned to love and care for my horses.

MY FIRST RACEHORSE, AFTER I GRADUATED FROM LAW SCHOOL at the University of Florida, was Voodoomon. A good friend, Will Knight, approached me about going into a partnership, and there were 10 of us altogether. I had grown up going to the races with my father and I was in awe of the beauty and grace and power of the horses. Voodoomon was the love of my life, and after we lost him in a claiming race at Monmouth in 2005, I claimed him two years later for $10,000 at Remington Park in Oklahoma; soon thereafter, I would become the sole owner of all of my horses.

SUPAH SOUP IS ANOTHER ONE OF MY HORSES I guess I have to admit I couldn’t let go. (Trainer) Dale Bennett is always looking to improve his stable, and at the start of Supah Soup’s 5-year-old year in 2009, Dale claimed him for $5,000. I guess he heard through the grapevine how disappointed I was to lose him, because he agreed to sell him back to me at no profit, provided he could continue to train him. That was fine with me. I have a ton of respect for Dale and Denise, his wife. They are knowledgeable horse people who care deeply about the aftercare of their horses.

IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO COME TO GRIPS WITH LOSING Voodoomon. I’m still not sure I’m over it. To honor him, I changed the name of my stable to Voodoomon Racing, and I began sponsoring a memorial race named for him every year at Arlington. I also vowed that every year, I would rescue a racehorse off the track that wasn’t in the best hands or getting the best care and needed to be retired, or one that was being over-raced. And for the past five years, I’ve taken a horse I never owned off the track and retired it to give it a chance to be retrained. I also donate to the rescue and retirement organizations affiliated with the tracks I race at. This, to me, is all part of Voodoomon’s legacy.

ONE EXAMPLE OF A HORSE I HELPED RESCUE IS CURRAGH MON, a son of Maria’s Mon who broke his maiden as a 3-year-old at Tampa Bay Downs. He raced three times at Fonner Park in Nebraska last year, and shortly after that, his former owners contacted me because they had lost track of his whereabouts. I must have made 100 phone calls, but with the help of other concerned horsemen, we were able to locate him. I agreed to pay $2,500 for him and foot the expenses to bring him back to Florida. Summer Thurber at the TROT foster facility in Myakka City did a tremendous job transitioning him and teaching him a new discipline, and he has a “forever” home now in Christmas, Fla.

TAMPA BAY DOWNS IS MY HOME TRACK WHERE I RACE my horses half the year, and being on the board of TROT helps me bring my philosophy to the group while working to get the support of other horsemen. The goal is to facilitate helping as many horses as we can when their racing days are over. As an industry, we have to make sure there is life after racing. I understand how people can get in over their heads; it’s expensive to care for horses, and it’s not like finding a home for dogs. But I’m not going to discard any horse because it is no longer racing. They are living beings, and as their owner I have signed on to be responsible for their welfare.

I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE A FEW MORE HORSES, BUT right now I know I can only manage the ones I have. I will never own more horses than I can afford to take care of after their racing careers. Even if you give a horse away, you have to maintain a watchful eye because things can go awry and the new owner may find they cannot afford to keep it. I want them all to have fabulous lives when they leave the track. Diamond Steal, my riding horse, got very sick toward the end of his career with pneumonia, but I wanted to save him and sent him to the University of Florida equine hospital and he recovered. I’ve been riding him once or twice a week for the past year, and it’s been a wonderful learning experience for both of us.

ONE OF TROT’S GOALS IS TO GET THE LOCAL HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) to support us and help fund our aftercare efforts. If there are horses in need and we can’t take them, we try to find them another home through other retirement and rescue programs. We do a lot of work with Florida TRAC (Thoroughbred Retirement & Adoptive Care), the program that is affiliated with Gulfstream Park and Calder. If TROT is full and we see a horse that has raced in south Florida that needs help, we can call them. Galloping Out, the retirement program in Illinois, does an excellent job. I think all the rescue and retirement programs need to work together, and I think horsemen everywhere need to do whatever they can to show support.

THERE IS NO QUESTION IN MY MIND OUR INDUSTRY NEEDS to improve its public image. A lot of people have misconceptions about how much the majority of owners love and care for their horses, but without viable aftercare and retraining toward second careers, racing runs the risk of turning people away. Too many people look at racehorses as a commodity, and they don’t really care about their welfare once they don’t have the potential to make them money. It is one of the worst things I can imagine – a horse that has earned its owner hundreds of thousands ending up in a bad place.

I’M PROUD OF BEING A FEMALE IN THIS INDUSTRY, proud of being a sole owner and proud of the relationship I have with my trainer, my groom, my hot walker and my exercise rider. It’s a family, and we all work together to be successful. Jim McMullen has been my primary trainer since 2008, and I have had a ton of success with him. We share similar beliefs – the welfare of the horse is always No. 1, even after they are done racing; their happiness and health comes first; and the sport needs to take steps toward becoming medication-free. Jim has a lot of patience and kindness, and he will board horses himself if they need a temporary home when their racing careers are over. Our philosophies mesh, and my horses are doing well because of the care he gives them.

ARLINGTON PARK HAS BEEN VERY SUPPORTIVE OF THE RACE to honor Voodoomon, and I fly to Chicago for it every year. Last year they suggested I enter one of my horses, so we put Doimakeyahappy in the race. He won by a couple of lengths, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in racing. In the winner’s circle, I felt Voodoomon’s spirit shining down on us, and it gave me even more strength to pursue this path. My next short-term goal is to win my first stakes race.