Gerald Bennett plans to haul five horses to Delaware Park on Monday, with another 10 or so headed out on a van Thursday. By the time he's finished, the veteran trainer should have between 30-35 horses ready for action for the May 30 opening.
Transporting Thoroughbreds is second nature for Bennett, who captured his third consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title and fourth overall with 53 victories (the 2017-2018 meeting officially ends on June 30, the first day of the two-day Summer Festival of Racing).
But the sense of accomplishment that comes with sitting atop the standings is every bit as rewarding as the first time for the 74-year-old conditioner.
“It's what you strive to do. That's why they keep records, and when you win the title it helps you set new goals and gives other people something to shoot for,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who won Saturday's Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association Ivanavinalot Florida Sire Stakes with long-shot Prospective Lady, was honored between races today with a trophy as the Oldsmar oval's Leading Trainer.
Also recognized were Leading Jockey Antonio Gallardo, also capturing his fourth Tampa Bay Downs crown; Leading Owner Rich Averill, who won his third Oldsmar title; and Leading Apprentice Jockey Jose A. Bracho.
The top horse by number of victories was 4-year-old filly Jermyn Street, who won five times (from six starts) for owners Vince Campanella and Nation's Racing Stable and trainer Keith Nations.
Bennett, whose wife Mary is an indispensable part of his operation, has 3,723 career victories since starting his training career in 1974, good for 15th on the all-time list. He won the Grade I Philip Iselin Handicap in 1990 with Beau Genius and has trained such other top horses as Secret Romeo, R Angel Katelyn, Fast Flying Rumor and Bucky's Prayer.
Although he doesn't punch a clock, his routine rarely varies, as he arrives at the barn by 5 a.m. each morning and checks each horse to see how they're eating and feeling. “It's seven days a week, from whatever time to whatever time. A horse might get sick and you're all night attending it,” he said.
“Mary says 'I don't know how you do it,' ” he revealed a while back. “I guess you have to have that desire to win, to be on top. Then you add the fun that comes with it, the camaraderie at the barn with your crew. … I've made a lot of friends over the years and I don't think there is another game in the world where you meet as many good people and make so many lasting friendships.”
One of those friends is trainer Kathleen O'Connell, a two-time Oldsmar training champion who traded the top spot with Bennett throughout much of the meeting before stalling at 48 victories. A gentleman of the first order, Bennett nonetheless took advantage of his numbers by dropping several horses in class late in the meeting – several thus getting claimed – to get the wins he needed to secure the title.
“If you want to be on top, that's what you have to do. You have to place your horses well,” he said.
Like Bennett, Antonio Gallardo has no intentions of resting on his laurels when he leaves Tampa Bay Downs. He plans to ride Monday through Thursday at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., and Fridaythrough Sunday at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., throughout the summer and early fall.
“I could stay at Presque Isle and take a couple of days off to come home to enjoy my family – that's the easy life, right?” said the 30-year-old Spaniard, who outdistanced the competition by riding 120 winners this season, including the Pasco Stakes on 3-year-old World of Trouble, for his fourth Oldsmar title. “But I believe when you have the opportunity and the business, you have to take it. You don't want to be looking back later wondering why you didn't go for it.”
Gallardo's breakneck pace – he rode Saturday at Monmouth before returning for today's action – helped him finish second in North America in victories in both 2015 (320) and 2016 (332). He has also won three riding titles at Presque Isle Downs and has won five races on a single card here four times, most recently on Feb. 2.
“Sometimes you have to be careful when you're winning races, because everything can seem so easy and you can get lazy,” he said. “You have to be hungry and stay focused, or your business can go down pretty fast.”
Gallardo, his wife Polliana and their two children traveled last fall to his hometown of Jerez in Cadiz, Spain to visit relatives, but he has fallen in love with the Tampa Bay area. After riding in New York the previous winner, he returned to the Oldsmar oval this season to pick up where he left off after riding a combined 282 winners here the previous two meetings.
“I wanted to make a change last year, and I did pretty well for my first time there,” he said. “But my family and I love it here. I could make more money somewhere else, but I would have less quality of life.
“You have to have fun and enjoy your family. Money comes and goes, but when time leaves, it never comes back to you,” he said.
Gallardo has established himself not only as a fan favorite at the betting windows but as an all-around class act, interacting with patrons, media and the public at large. He makes a point of shaking hands with sponsors when they have their pictures taken with him after he wins a race.
He's evolving into something of an “elder statesman” in the Tampa Bay Downs jockeys room, and is happy to help younger riders who seek his advice.
“When I first came here, I asked (six-time leading rider Daniel Centeno) a lot of questions and he always took the time to help me,” Gallardo said. “I like to listen to everybody, so I'm happy to help someone else if they ask.”
Rich Averill of Bradenton, Fla., who sprang to prominence in Thoroughbred racing in 2005 when he won the Florida Oaks and the Grade II Delaware Oaks with his filly R Lady Joy, embraces all aspects of the sport, from racing to buying horses at the sales to limited ventures into breeding. And he is eager to spread the gospel among friends who are new to the sport.
“It's fun to have partners and friends involved,” said Averill, who this season won his third Oldsmar crown with 19 victories, individually and in various partnerships. “When you come to the track, it doesn't matter how much of a horse you own; if you win a race, that never crosses your mind because winning is so exciting.”
And as Averill points out, spreading the risk among partners allows him to be more aggressive in pursuing quality horses such as R Lady Joy; Pay Any Price, a 7-year-old gelding who won this year's Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs; and now-4-year-old filly R Angel Katelyn, a winner of three stakes at last year's meeting.
The benefits of Averill's approach were on vivid display after the Turf Dash. About four dozen friends, family members and co-workers crowded the winner's circle to have their picture taken Pay Any Price, who is owned by Averill and Paul and Duke Matties' Matties Racing Stable.
Other Averill partners include Clark Freeman (CCF Racing Stable); Roger Smith (K Lauren Racing); and Silver Oak (Jim Tipps and Tim Erensen).
Averill, who owns Rich Averill Masonry in Bradenton, uses top trainers Gerald Bennett and Ralph Ziadie while racing the majority of his horses at Tampa Bay Downs and in south Florida. He is active at sales in Ocala, employing bloodstock agent Barry Berkelhammer to select many of his horses.
Averill is also a student of the game and pedigrees and enjoys pitting his observations and opinions against other lovers of the sport, both in conversation and at the wagering windows. Other top horses he has campaigned include Paradise Dancer, R Free Roll and Rgirldoesn'tbluff.
“Tampa Bay Downs is one of my favorite tracks, and living an hour away makes winning the title even more gratifying,” said Averill, who has also won two owners titles at Calder (now Gulfstream Park West). “I enjoy supporting the track and Florida racing, and I thank my partners for having faith in me and my trainers for preparing the horses to compete.”
LEADING APPRENTICE JOCKEY
Jose A. Bracho is a tall (for a jockey), gangly youngster who bears a faint resemblance to schoolteacher Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving's tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You wouldn't think Bracho was an athlete, until he climbs atop a horse and folds his lanky frame into positions that make his mounts respond.
With 17 victories as an apprentice, Bracho was the only candidate for the track's Leading Apprentice title. He has since added 14 victories (two today, more information below), raising expectations as he prepares to compete this spring and summer at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.
“I want to keep the same work ethic and keep hustling,” said the 20-year-old from Venezuela, who earned his first career stakes victory Saturday on 3-year-old filly Prospective Lady in the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association Ivanavinalot Florida Sire Stakes.
“My goal is to keep improving every day and have trainers see I give 100 percent on their horses. I'm excited to be going there, and hopefully I will do as well as I've done here or better,” he said.
Bracho, whose father Agustin Bracho and uncles Jesus A. Bracho and Jorge Bracho are jockeys (he also has a brother who is a trainer), has a built-in support system that has smoothed his path. He remembers wearing his father's helmet and boots when he was 4 on the drive to the racetrack in Venezuela and has figured he would become a jockey ever since.
After losing his 5-pound apprentice allowance in March, Bracho was unsure how he would fare without the “bug” and whether trainers would look elsewhere for riders. He needn't have worried. He won his first race as a journeyman on March 23 on 4-year-old gelding Cavallo d'Oro for trainer Elliot Sullivan.
“It had been in the back of my mind, because I had heard your business could really slow down after you lost your bug. But I have a lot of confidence in myself too,” said Bracho, who stands about 5-feet-10.
“I knew I could ride, and if I just kept up with my good work habits I knew I wasn't going to slow down too much.”
In addition to relying on his father for guidance, Bracho has sought advice from Trevor McCarthy and Alex Cintron in Maryland and Antonio Gallardo and countryman Daniel Centeno at Tampa Bay Downs. “Those guys have always been willing to try to help me better myself,” he said.
It's obvious those veterans see his “want-to” beneath the unassuming exterior.
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