Tampa Bay Downs jockey Angel Suarez wasn't born when the North American Thoroughbred foal crop peaked at 51,296 in 1986. But he and his agent, John Weilbacher, devised a plan last summer and fall for dealing with those days when he was named to ride only three or four races.
On numerous occasions, the duo drove from Delaware Park following an afternoon card to ride night races at Penn National in Grantville, Pa., also making the trip a few times from Laurel in Maryland and Meadowlands in New Jersey. After fulfilling those assignments, they returned to their primary base for 5 or 6 hours of sleep before Suarez was back working horses the next morning.
“I can't tell you how many times he rode the seventh race at Delaware and ran out of the room wearing his jockey pants and carrying his tack so we could make it to Penn National in time to ride a couple of night races,” Weilbacher said. “Then, we'd get back at midnight and he'd have stuff to do the next morning.
“He never complained. His work ethic is the best,” Weilbacher said.
The drive might take 2-2 ½ hours, and Suarez occasionally caught a nap to be at peak strength and alertness when they arrived. “Business was good, and when business is good you have to make sure you get to where you need to ride,” Suarez said. “It was fun because a lot of those horses were 'live' and it makes you feel good and boosts your confidence to win those races.”
Weilbacher is glad they have landed at Tampa Bay Downs, where racing is held four days a week and there aren't enough opportunities for Suarez to consider moonlighting at Gulfstream in south Florida on Tampa Bay Downs dark days.
“It's a good time of year for him to have a couple of days off and rejuvenate a little bit so he'll be ready to roll again in the spring,” Weilbacher said.
Besides, Suarez is finding the environment in Oldsmar to his liking. He is fifth in the standings with 23 victories and is the recipient of the SenÞor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month award.
Suarez has made a strong impression in his first season at Tampa Bay Downs with his desire to succeed and attention to detail, maintaining a steady pace since riding three winners on the Nov. 27 Opening Day card. “My goal for Angel when we came here was top five in the standings, and that's where we are now,” Weilbacher said. “I think he can come up another spot or two, but I'm happy with how he's doing.”
Win or lose, Suarez views every race as a learning opportunity. “I like to go home at night and watch the replays and see what I could have done differently – if I moved too soon or waited too much,” said the 26-year-old from Carolina, Puerto Rico. “I like to know my horses real well for when I ride them again.”
His ambition is keen, but Suarez recognizes the need for patience. Three of the guys leading him in the standings have combined for 11 Oldsmar riding titles, and the other has won five titles at Presque Isle Downs.
“One thing that has helped me here is being able to ride with a high quality of jockeys. You learn how to make the right moves, how to be more patient, saving ground,” Suarez said. “If I'm riding the turf on a horse that comes off the pace, I have to know which horse and jockey it's best to follow. You do that by watching them ride and using good judgment.”
Suarez was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2012, riding 151 winners. Riding primarily at Delaware and Monmouth Park last season, he had the best year of his career with 126 victories, purse earnings of $3.7-million and his first graded-stakes victory, on Horologist in the Grade III Monmouth Oaks.
Suarez, who is single, is living with Weilbacher and his wife Tara this season. The jockey and agent go fishing on off days, when Suarez isn't running on the beach or working out at a gym. His goal is to establish a firm foothold at Tampa Bay Downs for future seasons and become that in-demand jockey other young riders are chasing.
“The top four jockeys have been here for years, and they have their connections and barns they ride for,” Suarez said. “I have to prove to those trainers I have the ability and I'm hungry.”
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