01/12/2011 3:59PM

After initial failure, Centeno builds successful riding career in the U.S.

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Tom Cooley Photography
Daniel Centeno, 39, is well on his way to winning his fifth straight riding title at Tampa Bay Downs.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Daniel Centeno is making the most of his mulligan. A jockey since 1990, Centeno tried riding in the United States in 1996 and went a dismal 2 for 85 before going right back home to Venezuela.

“I was at Calder and couldn’t do any good,” said Centeno.

But since returning to the U.S. in 2003, Centeno (pronounced sen-TEN-oh) has developed into a dominant rider at several tracks. At Tampa Bay Downs, where Centeno, 39, has surged away to a sizable lead atop the 2010-11 meet standings, he is seeking a fifth straight riding title. He also was the leading jockey in wins and earnings last summer at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, and was in a neck-and-neck battle for top jockey until leaving the Tropical-at-Calder meet in mid-December for the start of Tampa.

Venezuela has produced a number of top jockeys who have excelled in America, most notably Ramon Dominguez, Javier Castellano, and Eibar Coa. Centeno has not yet achieved their renown, but after having compiled a number of impressive feats and statistics here and elsewhere, it might not be long before he begins making himself better known on a national level.

“The way the rider colony has changed in this country the last few years, he’s one of the new ones,” said trainer Gerald Bennett, perennially among the leading trainers at Tampa each winter. “He knows how to ride this racetrack, that’s for sure. He always seems to be in the right spot, he’s aggressive, and he really, really wants to win.”

Centeno said in a recent interview in the Tampa jockeys’ room that his years in Venezuela fostered a burning desire that got him to the top – and helps him stay there.

“I did okay in Venezuela,” said Centeno, “but I came back to America to have a better life and a better career.”

Centeno recalls that Irwin Rosendo, a fellow Venezuelan and Tampa jockey, called from Thistledown with a simple message. “You need to come back. I was back in about a week.” Centeno said.

Centeno said he works the backstretch most mornings and does his homework.

“My English is much better now,” he said. “I watch a lot of replays, a lot of races, read the Form . I try to learn something all the time.”

Peter Mallett, a free-lance author who has written extensively about handicapping trends at Tampa, wrote in his 2010-11 Tampa handbook that Centeno is a rider “always probing the track for an advantage. If there is a track bias at play, he will be the first to find and exploit it.”

Centeno has ridden some nice horses, including Dr. Zic, Uptowncharlybrown, and Lookinforthesecret, as well as Musket Man, on whom he won the 2009 Tampa Bay Derby. But the connections of Musket Man wanted a so-called “name” rider as the Kentucky Derby approached, and it was Coa who got the call for a winning ride in the Illinois Derby and third-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. A similar scenario unfolded in 2010, when Centeno won the Super Stakes at Tampa on Musket Man, but Dominguez got to ride him in his next start, the Grade 1 Carter at Aqueduct.

“I understand how that is,” said Centeno. “One day it will be me to have that kind of opportunity, I hope.”