07/07/2017 12:16PM

Hovdey: No time to lollygag even after seven-win day


Tyler Gaffalione is getting all the ink this week, and rightfully so since he did something no one had done for 22 years by winning seven races at Gulfstream Park on the Fourth of July. If you guessed that Jerry Bailey was the last jock to win seven at Gulfstream, give yourself a point.

Gaffalione is 22 and fresh from winning the spring title at Gulfstream. Two years ago, he won an Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice, so it’s nice to see that the trophy has not gone to waste. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the sky is the limit for the young Florida native.

Leading a meet is no mean feat. It requires a focus of purpose and a steely discipline to treat every race as the most important race of the day. Go home, get a meal and some sleep, then do it again the next day and the next until someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Okay, you’re the champ.”

With Gaffalione just getting started on the Gulfstream summer season, it seemed like a good time to acknowledge the leading riders at some of the outposts that tend to get ignored by the national racing media. (Guilty as charged.) The last time I checked, the challenge of riding a half-ton Thoroughbred at high speed is pretty much the same whether it is happening at Belmont or Belterra Park.

Speaking of which, look who’s leading the pack at Belterra, the Ohio track near Cincinnati that is 2 1/2 months into its six-month season. Perry Wayne Ouzts, Old Man River Downs himself, is cruising along with 47 winners as of this writing, well clear of second-place Gabriel Lagunes. Ouzts, who has 40 years on Gaffalione, had 6,781 winners entering Friday’s card. He rides six on Sunday.

There were some tense moments earlier this year as the people who run Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack fought for survival in an increasingly competitive upstate New York casino environment. A deal was struck, racing commenced in April, and right on cue, veteran John Davila Jr., 53, set a course to take a second straight Finger Lakes title. After a winner on Thursday, Davila was leading Luis Perez, 55-37.

Presque Isle Downs, up there on Lake Erie, hasn’t been around nearly as long as venerable Finger Lakes, but the casino money driving purses tends to lure riders of proven quality. The jocks’ room at the current meet includes racing household names like Mario Pino, Jeremy Rose, and Willie Martinez, all of them chasing the current leader, Pablo Morales, a 28-year-old native of Peru.

If you are wondering how the void left by the retirement of Russell Baze will be filled in Northern California, the early answer is Guatemala’s Abel Cedillo, who led the recently concluded Golden Gate Fields meet with 89 winners. But the competition runs deep through hungry journeymen like Juan Hernandez, Frank Alvarado, and Billy Antongeorgi.

As for naming the hottest apprentice in the land, the quick reply probably would be Evin Roman, the 19-year-old Puerto Rican who just finished in a dead heat with Flavien Prat for the spring title at Santa Anita. They each won 41 races.

Then again, there is nothing wrong with the way 20-year-old apprentice Katie Clawson has taken charge of the Indiana Grand standings, comfortably ahead of Marcelino Pedroza and the redoubtable Deshawn Parker (5,270 wins and counting) as the halfway point of the long meet nears.

The Delaware Park season is another long haul, stretching from early June to the last week of October. As of Friday morning, there were four jocks at the top with 10 wins each: Edwin Gonzalez, Orlando Bocachica, and Carol Cedeno, the winner of the last three Delaware titles, along with apprentice Ashley Castrenze, who burst onto the scene in the spring of 2016 by winning with six of her first seven mounts.

Castrenze came back to earth in the worst way last October when she fractured three ribs in a bad fall at Laurel Park. The damage needed half a year to heal properly, and now she is back, looking to write a Delaware fairy tale. She’s 20, so I wouldn’t bet against her.

The tour ends at Emerald Downs, just south of Seattle, where Rocco Bowen is proving that his 2016 title was no fluke. Last year, the 28-year-old native of Barbados won 110 races in 70 days. Entering Friday’s card, Bowen had 66 wins to be humming along on a similar pace.

“No way I’m surprised,” said Joe Steiner, who retired from riding last summer after a wide-ranging career of 35 years. “The first time I saw him ride, I knew he was going places.”

Ascending to the top of any athletic endeavor can be a head trip for a young professional. To borrow from Jack Nicklaus, “Getting good, then staying good, is a tough and lonely and endless journey.” Bowen has benefitted from Steiner’s counsel and friendship, which has evolved into a “big brother/little brother” association.

“As he had more and more success, I emphasized how important it was to stay humble,” Steiner said. “The better you do, the more some people will want to see you fail.”

Still, it must be tough not to strut when your name leads the field.

“That’s human nature,” Steiner said. “But in reality, you’re no better than anyone around the track. You just do a different job.”