Every time he exercised Navy Armed Guard this season, David Delgado thirsted for a chance to ride the 3-year-old gelding in a race. When that opportunity came on March 24 at Tampa Bay Downs, Delgado felt as giddy as a schoolboy before his first dance.
“It was a long time since I'd been on a nice horse like that,” said Delgado, who rode the Triple Crown nominee to a length-and-a-half victory for trainer Joan Scott in the mile-and-40-yard, maiden special weight event. “When I had galloped him in the mornings, I was wishing all the time I could ride him in a race.
“I hope I get the chance to ride him again,” Delgado added.
The victory was the first in eight career starts for Navy Armed Guard and one of five in March from only 17 mounts for Delgado, earning him the SenÞor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month award.
His honor is a boon for the track's unsung journeymen who, for the most part, rarely ride the quality of stock provided for such consistent winners as Antonio Gallardo, Daniel Centeno, Pablo Morales, Jose Ferrer, Samy Camacho and Jesus Castanon.
How much the award raises Delgado's profile remains to be determined, but trainers such as Scott know they can rely on the 37-year-old Spaniard to keep their horse in a good position, accurately gauge the competition and save their mount's best run for the stretch drive.
“David has a lot of horsemanship skill,” Scott said. “He's quiet on a horse and knows how to get along with them, and I value his opinion about a horse after it breezes.
“He makes an effort to understand horses when he gallops and breezes them and is able to pick up on their idiosyncrasies. He's a hard worker, and he has a nice, steady way of doing things every day.”
Delgado grew up in Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain, an area known for its annual summer horse racing on the beach. He was galloping by age 12 and began riding races at 14 as an amateur.
“When I finished high school and started winning a lot of races, I started thinking this could be my job,” Delgado said. He emerged as one of Spain's top jockeys a few years later, winning several meet titles and twice finishing second in the nation's annual jockey standings.
Around the same time, a raw, promising 15-year-old from nearby Jerez de la Frontera showed up at the farm where Delgado worked to begin galloping horses. “He was very green, but you could see he liked to work and wanted to learn,” Delgado recalled.
That was the beginning of a friendship between Delgado and Gallardo, who has won three titles at Tampa Bay Downs while compiling 1,357 victories and five graded-stakes triumphs in the United States since 2009.
Delgado remained in Europe after Gallardo departed, riding a number of top horses in Spain and France and spreading his wings to brave snowstorms and freezing temperatures in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (horses wear studded shoes for better traction on snow-covered Scandinavian tracks).
About eight years ago, Delgado decided he needed a change. “I was tired of traveling around Europe – I had seen everything and wanted to try something new,” he said.
After struggling his first few years stateside, he heeded Gallardo's advice two seasons ago to give Tampa Bay Downs a try. Although the victories haven't stacked up, Delgado has done well enough to recently buy a house in Oldsmar.
“It was so hard when I first came here,” he said. “You have to start everything from the beginning, because nobody knows you. I almost had to retire.
“But being a jockey, I think, is something you have inside you. You know one day you're not going to do it, because your body is going to tell you to stop. But I feel strong and I feel good about what I'm doing, and as long as I have that feeling and believe I have the power to improve a horse, I'm going to keep going.”
Gallardo, who also experienced growing pains when he first arrived from Spain, appreciates his friend's guidance and admires his determination to succeed and the optimistic, positive approach he brings to each assignment.
“When I first started galloping he taught me a lot, especially how to get a horse to relax,” Gallardo said. “Now, he is kind of in the same spot I was before. He is a very professional rider who loves his job and comes to work hard every day.
“He is waiting for the right opportunity (to advance his career), but no matter when it happens, I know he will keep working because he is a strong person.”
Delgado's agent, Yamil Mayo, credits his “I'm going for it” approach with every mount.
“He knows where to put his horses to have the best chance to win and he knows what the rider next to him is likely to do,” Mayo said. “He's honest with trainers about what he feels. He wants them to trust what he has to say.”
Delgado – who won today's fourth race on 5-year-old mare Axial Load for Scott and owners Steve Ballou and Harriet Waldron – sees a bright side in being lesser-known, at least for now. “When you have a small group of people giving you a chance, you get to know those horses really well,” he said.
“Nobody knows how competitive this track is,” said Delgado, who plans to move his tack to Presque Isle Downs in western Pennsylvania after the current meeting. “You have a bunch of jockeys here who were leading riders at different tracks up north, but I like that. I don't want it to be easy. In this country, if you work hard, the results come, and you can get what you're looking for.”
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