Tampa Bay Publicity Department 1.27.2023
On the racetrack, jockeys Daniel Centeno and Willie Martinez are known for their calm outward appearance and ability to stay cool under pressure.
Both appear equally unflappable away from competition. But beneath the surface, they may be experiencing butterflies regarding the impending announcement of the 74th annual George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner.
Centeno and Martinez, both past Tampa Bay Downs riding champions, are among five nominees for the honor. The others are National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame member Javier Castellano; Terry “T.D.” Houghton, who won back-to-back Oldsmar riding crowns in 1998-99 and 1999-2000; and southern California mainstay Edwin Maldonado.
The winner is determined through voting by their fellow riders across the country. Each of the five was nominated by a Jockeys’ Guild Regional Manager for having demonstrated high standards of personal and professional conduct on and off the racetrack.
Most of the great names in racing have won the award, including Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Angel Cordero, Jr., Ron Turcotte, Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, Pat Day, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez. Current Tampa Bay Downs jockey Jose Ferrer earned the honor in 2018.
The award (the winner will be revealed in February) is coveted and cherished, meant to recognize an entire career spent working to lift the sport in the eyes of the public, striving for excellence in every race and assisting their fellow riders whenever possible. Just to be nominated is a humbling experience.
“It’s an honor,” said Centeno, a Jockeys’ Guild representative at Tampa Bay Downs and Delaware Park. “It never crossed my mind that I was going to be on that list. I won the Tampa Bay Derby twice and I won the Delaware Handicap, but to be nominated for this award is way bigger.”
Martinez, who hails from Santurce, Puerto Rico, has won 150 stakes, 38 of them graded, including the Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Trinniberg in 2012. He has ridden in the Kentucky Derby five times.
Being a Woolf Award finalist is a whole different ballgame.
“It doesn’t surprise me older riders tend to get nominated, because when you’re on top it’s easy to be generous and nice to people,” Martinez said. “This is about how you are over a lifetime – the way you conduct yourself and how professional you are over decades of ups and downs, comebacks, injuries, relocations, agent changes.”
To say nothing of life’s twists and turns, easily forgotten by bettors quick to turn on a jockey for losing a photo finish aboard a 4-5 shot.
In a delightful coincidence, Centeno and Martinez both got married over a three-week span last fall. On Nov. 20, Centeno wed Brooke Sillaman, a chiropractic physician’s assistant whose father, Richard Sillaman, is a Thoroughbred trainer. Daniel and Brooke have a 15-month-old daughter, Sophia. Centeno’s older daughter, Jazmyn, is a high school freshman..
Son Daniel, 23, is a bartender and online marketer living in Tampa.
Three weeks after the Centenos tied the knot, Martinez married Jamie Bragg, the daughter of trainers Harold and Pat Bragg and an on-air personality and social media contributor with Horse Racing Today. Their son Mateo turned 3 in November, and Martinez is a stepfather to Jamie’s daughters Taylor, 11; Kinsley, 9; and Summer, 6.
Long-time Tampa Bay Downs followers probably never foresaw the day when six-time track riding champion Centeno and Martinez, who won his lone Oldsmar title 31 years ago, would reach their 50s (both are 51, with Martinez about 9 months older).
Heriberto Rivera, Jr., a Jockeys’ Guild Regional Manager and a two-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champ who rode 3,183 winners, said both men’s standing as solid family men was a major factor in their nomination. Both have embraced their “Mr. Mom” responsibilities with the same caring and enthusiasm that have marked their racing accomplishments.
Martinez, who has ridden only at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., since 2021, walks the girls to their nearby school and picks them up, usually taking charge of Mateo the rest of the day. Jamie also works as a pharmacist in Zephyrhills and often stays with her mom there during the week, leaving Willie to handle child-rearing on the fly.
Just as he was 34 years ago as an apprentice jockey, Martinez is proving to be a quick study.
“I’ll come home and the house is spotless,” Jamie said. “When he is gone at Presque Isle Downs during the summer, I miss him like crazy.
“Willie is kind of a big kid himself in some ways, and he likes to plan events for the kids all the time. He loves taking them to the beach or the park. (On a recent night) the girls and I were tired and not feeling it, so he took Mateo by himself to Jurassic World.”
Martinez curtailed his schedule three years ago after Mateo was born, deciding to spend the winter and early spring living in Oldsmar as a partner and dad. He knows Jamie longs for the day when he retires for good, but as much as he loves his time at home, the jockey dubbed “Chillie Willie” years ago for his poise on a horse shudders at the thought of ending his career.
“Jamie knows the calendar is closing the gap on me. She tells me to go to the backside and be an agent. But I’ve been (riding) for the last 35 years, and I’m not ready to detach myself from what gave me life.
“The reality is, riding horses is all I’ve known. My biggest fear is the day I stop riding,” Martinez said.
In Centeno’s case, just suggesting retirement is likely to get the same response as a kid who was just told to come in off the playground. The Caracas, Venezuela product is currently tied for fourth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 17 winners, and a recent hot streak that included his victory on Opus Forty Two in the $125,000 Gasparilla Stakes nailed down the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award.
“I love what I do,” Centeno said when asked what motivates him to keep competing. “I love riding and I love winning races. I think if you work hard and you’re healthy and you’re fit, people see what you’re doing. They don’t care about your age, and you’re going to get an opportunity to ride good horses.”
Centeno has reunited this season with agent Daniel Mellul, who handled his book during his run of four consecutive titles from 2006-07 through 2009-10. Having an agent with a thorough understanding of the business – as Morales does with former jockey Paula Bacon – enables Centeno to focus on his assignments.
“I watch a lot of races when I’m home on my day off,” he said. “I try to look at jockeys’ styles, how they ride and put horses in position, especially on the grass. I like to watch the top riders so I can learn more every day.”
That dedication doesn’t detract from his girls. “Daniel is an amazing father who is always there for his kids,” Brooke said. “Sophia still wakes up at night, so we’ll take turns putting her back to sleep. He does most of the cooking, and I love his Churrasco steaks and tilapia.
“We are on the same page with mostly everything, but we always discuss the pros and cons of a situation so we can make the smartest decision.”
For both local couples, maintaining a stable family life requires compromises made easier by the discipline they have all acquired through horse racing. Things gotta get done – some right now and some 5 minutes ago. Centeno and Martinez can only ride one horse at a time and they’re trying to beat everyone else on the track, but raising kids is a team game.
And, unlike race-riding, one they can play as long as they want.