Tampa Stay ‘Opening Doors’ For Jockey Of The Month Hector Diaz

Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., had been eager to ride trainer Kathleen O’Connell’s 3-year-old filly Nancy Work since breezing her at Tampa Bay Downs before her start on March 7 at Gulfstream Park in a maiden claiming race.

“Some horses work fast and some don’t, but you know how they do it and how they feel,” said Diaz, who made the most of his chance in Wednesday’s ninth race at Tampa by riding Nancy Work to her maiden victory going a mile on the turf. “When I work a horse, I want to know how much they have galloping out after they hit the wire, and she did it easy and comfortable and came off the track happy. That’s the main thing.”

Nancy Work finished last in her Gulfstream effort in a race that was taken off the turf, showing as much liking for the sloppy racetrack as a mother whose 4 and 5-year-olds just returned from frolicking in a mud puddle. Neither that effort nor a subsequent fifth-place finish here on the grass on March 19 lessened Diaz’s enthusiasm for the chance to team up with her in a race for the first time.

As if sensing her pilot’s confidence, Nancy Work relayed to Diaz her desire to graduate into the ranks of winners before the start.

“When I got on her, she was on the toes. I knew she was ready to run,” he said.

The come-from-behind, 3 ½-length victory from Estilo Elegante and eight others capped a three-victory performance Wednesday by Diaz, earning him the Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month Award. After winning twice today, Diaz is in third place in the standings with 57 victories, and his win percentage of 19.7 is the track’s second-best, behind Antonio Gallardo’s 22.5.

Diaz’s victories today came on 3-year-old filly Flash Town in the fourth race for owner Sabal Racing Stable and trainer Darien Rodriguez and in the sixth on the turf on 5-year-old gelding Joy City for owner Francis Paolangeli and trainer Bobby Raymond. Flash Town was claimed for $8,000 by trainer Rafael Schistl for new owner Endsley Oaks Farm.

Also on today’s card, no bettor hit the late 50-cent Pick-5, creating a carryover pool of $39,302.87 into Saturday’s late Pick-5. That wager will begin with the sixth race.

“It’s gone better than I expected. It’s tough to come to a new place and do this well,” said the 31-year-old Diaz, who is in his first season at Tampa Bay Downs. “To be in the (top three) with all the good riders here is a great accomplishment for me. I have to praise God and thank all the owners and trainers and everyone who supported me.”

Winning races is rarely easy, even when you’re on the best horse. Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Maple said he nearly flew off the saddle when Secretariat unleashed his ungodly acceleration on the turn for home in the legend’s final career race, the 1973 Canadian International at Woodbine in Toronto.

Along the backstretch in Wednesday’s finale, Diaz and Nancy Work were inside and relaxed in mid-pack when long shot Abuela Cori made a bold move directly outside, forcing Diaz into decision mode. His knowledge of Nancy Work, the rapport they had established, simplified the rider’s decisions.

“You can’t get scared when you are on the rail stuck behind horses,” said Diaz, referring to the impulse to make a premature move rather than stay patient to preserve a strong finishing kick. “I just relaxed there and waited, because I didn’t have any room. I think it worked out perfectly, because I put my filly on the outside nearing the quarter-mile pole and she kicked on.”

That kind of savvy decision-making, especially on the turf, has made Diaz a fan favorite here, and he says the feeling is mutual. Set to head north next week, Diaz plans to return to Oldsmar next fall and build on his solid foundation.

“I love it here,” said Diaz, who lives with his fiancée Deyanyra and 3-year-old son Andrew.

Diaz plans to depart in time to ride on the April 22 Opening Day card at Belmont Park before moving his tack to Monmouth Park for its spring-summer meeting. His agent, Shawn Klotz, said riding here for such top trainers as O’Connell, Michael Stidham, Arnaud Delacour, Christophe Clement and George Weaver can pay long-term dividends for his rider, especially at tracks with higher purse structures than Tampa Bay Downs.

“Look at all the stables that ship horses to Tampa for maiden special weight races on the turf. Stidham, Clement, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Graham Motion. … the list goes on and on. It’s insane,” said Klotz, who is based in Seaford, New York. “Those are opportunities to ride for bigger barns, and the benefit comes when Hector goes to the bigger tracks and has earned the trust and confidence of those trainers.”

Klotz said that is why Tampa Bay Downs is an ideal place for Diaz at this stage of his career.

“I call it opening doors,” the agent said. “Getting in with some of those bigger outfits at Tampa is only going to help him in the long run.”

A strong measure of confidence, along with his talent, work ethic and analytical approach, especially after a defeat, will do the rest.

“Sometimes I’ll get to the finish and think I was just second-best, but I still watch the replay and look for something I could have done different to win,” Diaz said. “I don’t watch my replays when I win. I watch the ones I lose.”

The post Tampa Stay ‘Opening Doors’ For Jockey Of The Month Hector Diaz appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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