01/21/2013 1:55PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Centeno, Serpa off to fast start in race for riding title

Angel Serpa does quite well on the Tampa Bay turf, winning at a 28 percent rate.
Angel Serpa

OLDSMAR, Fla. – It has been six weeks since the meeting started at Tampa, just long enough to see there’s a ding-dong battle shaping up for leading rider between Daniel Centeno and Angel Serpa.

Centeno, who has topped the local rider standings four times, has been clicking off winners at a steady rate since the beginning of the meet, and through Sunday, he had 31 victories.

Serpa, who was among the finalists for the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice in 2011, has 30 wins and had a big week last week, winning eight races in three days heading into Sunday’s card.

Both riders have working relationships with some of the hottest stables on the grounds. Both Centeno and Serpa ride for leading trainer Jamie Ness, while Serpa also has been highly successful when teamed up with Jane Cibelli, who is winning races at a blistering 41 percent rate. Serpa has ridden 20 horses for Cibelli and has won with eight of those mounts for a 42 percent winning percentage.

Centeno owns the main track and is winning at a 29 percent clip on the dirt, while Serpa excels on the turf, winning with 28 percent of his mounts on the infield course.

Serpa won three races on Saturday’s card, but it was his performance on a losing mount in the 10th race that illustrated just how crafty he can be. Serpa was on El Commodore, an old class horse who has had much of his career success when he has led from start to finish. But after El Commodore broke sharply from the inside in the mile prep for the Grade 3, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, Serpa found himself penned down on the fence and head and head with two rivals intent on vying for the lead.

Sensing he was being drawn into a suicidal pace scenario, Serpa quickly eased his mount back off the lead and tucked behind the leaders. After six furlongs in 1:10.66, Serpa sent El Commodore up to challenge and gained the lead in the drive, and while he was run down near the wire by Alley Oop Oop, there is little question the rider’s early decision not to get sucked into a demanding pace battle gave him and his mount a much better chance to win the race.

It should be fun to see how this battle develops in the coming weeks and months. Both riders, hopefully, will stay healthy, because they are both fun to watch and from a gambling angle both give your money’s worth when you back a horse they’re riding.

Allen’s mount second in turf stakes

Ronnie Allen, currently fourth in the rider standings, took off his mounts Saturday to journey to Gulfstream Park and ride Hooh Why in the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf.

Even though Hooh Why had to race over a yielding turf course, which is not her favorite type footing, she still chased the leader and drove to the lead in the stretch of the nine-furlong race, only to be run down late by Regalo Mia. Hooh Why has earned more than a million dollars during her career.

Bennett mare breaks down

Trainer Gerald Bennett, who recently returned from a trip to Michigan with his wife, Mary, to attend the funeral of her mother, suffered another tough blow Saturday morning when one of his top runners, the 5-year-old mare Gilhooly’s Super, broke down while pulling up after a workout and was euthanized.

“She’d just finished working super. She was galloping out, and when she changed leads it happened,” a visibly shaken Bennett said. “I’ll admit I was tearing up. It’s tough. It’s like losing a member of the family.”

Gilhooly’s Super won 8 of 19 starts and $112,388. She earned a career-best 88 Beyer Speed Figure for her 5 1/2-length win in a first-level optional $25,000 claimer locally Dec. 21.