Whenever he reaches the Tampa Bay Downs winner's circle, Pablo Morales flashes a smile capable of lighting a moonless night.
But Morales doesn't mind letting everyone in on a secret: At 30, being a jockey is more enjoyable than at any previous point of his career.
“You're more mature. You still get discouraged sometimes because we are all competitors and we want to win, but it's a lot easier to manage because you've been around the circle so many times,” Morales said. “There are always going to be ups and downs, but you're able to block out the downs better because you know the important thing is coming back safe and being able to keep trying.
“When you have the confidence that you know what you're doing, you don't feel like you have to prove yourself every time. The excitement is there, but you're not nervous anymore,” he said. “You've been introduced to so many situations that you believe in yourself, and you know you're prepared to do the best you can.”
For Morales, that inner security is a byproduct of riding more than 10,000 races since his U.S. debut in 2005. The Lima, Peru product has ridden 1,738 winners, including 200 in 2018 and 201 in 2017.
With 10 victories over the last nine racing days, Morales has climbed to third place in the Oldsmar standings with 21 victories while earning the SenÞor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month Award.
Morales, who has won five riding titles at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., including last year, continues to show the kind of subtle improvement that might land him some major stakes opportunities here over the next couple of months and down the road.
“I don't know how much he has improved, because he was good to begin with,” said his agent, Paula Bacon, a former jockey who has handled his book the last three seasons. “He was a pretty well-rounded rider when I took him, but he might have gotten a little better with the combination of getting better mounts and having more confidence.
“He is a strong finisher in a race, and I've heard a lot of people say he's the best turf rider here. Horses seem to like to be tucked in and together on the grass here, and he does a great job of staying tucked behind horses and waiting for a seam to open,” Bacon said.
Like most of the horsemen they deal with on the backside, Bacon is impressed by how Morales treats people. “He is an absolute dream to work with. He is polite, friendly and well-meaning,” Bacon said. “He is a kind person and a family man who doesn't have any bad habits. If I tell him he has nine horses to work in the morning, there is no complaining – he just asks me to send him his schedule.”
Morales appreciates Bacon's efforts in securing him good mounts and her encouragement during the slow times. “She looks out for my best interests every day,” he said. “It's great to have your agent be a fan of yours and know that she believes in what she's selling.”
Morales calls his father, retired jockey and trainer Pedro Morales, every time he wins a race. The elder Morales and mom Gloria live in Miami. “He thinks I'm the best jockey in the world, and if I don't call him he gets mad,” Morales said, laughing. “He goes crazy every time I ride. He always wants to congratulate me, but he doesn't want to bother me.”
Wife Erin and the couple's children, 8-year-old Sophia and 6-year-old Camilo, are the focus of his life away from racing. They like to go to movies or bowl or visit Topgolf or The Downs Golf Practice Facility on dark days, and Morales values their contributions to his career.
“My wife keeps a happy home, cooks for us and takes extremely good care of the kids,” he said. “That is one less thing for me to stress about, and I can focus on my job better.”
The youngest of five children (brother Renzo was a champion jockey in Peru, and he and brother Pedro are both exercise riders in New York), Morales earned his first North American victory at Gulfstream in 2005 before his 17th birthday. That same year, just after turning 17, he won the Grade II, $750,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs aboard The Daddy.
He's had a few close misses since in graded stakes, but that void isn't anything that consumes him. These are the best times of his career and he looks forward to keeping his reputation, and his record, growing day-by-day and meeting-by-meeting while waiting for the “big horse” to arrive.
“You just have to keep grinding and keep trying. Your Derby mount could be around the corner,” he said. “You have to do your best every day so when the opportunity is there, they'll trust you to get the job done. In our job, you're always learning and you're going to make mistakes. But the more you win, the more confident you get and the better your decisions are going to be.”
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