The Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month, Gary Wales, wasn’t born when rock-and-roll legend Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” spoke to a generation of young people searching for truth and meaning almost 50 years ago.
But a snippet from the late musician’s best-known song can easily be applied to the decision by Wales to move his tack 3,100 miles to Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., after the 2017-2018 Tampa Bay Downs season.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin,’ don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no
Eager for a change of scenery after riding only 53 mounts in Oldsmar, Wales and his wife Katie Mancini Wales loaded their possessions into two cars, brought along plenty of food for their two cats and headed west after spending the previous two summers at Delaware Park.
The Edinburgh, Scotland product wasn’t going to Emerald Downs as a complete unknown. Trainer Tom Clark had suggested Wales contact top Emerald Downs jockeys agent David “Marbles” Singer about joining forces, and the two hit it off even better than expected, with Wales riding 54 winners to finish fourth in the 2018 standings.
Imagine doing that with Mount Rainier as a backdrop, and it’s easy to see why Gary and Katie were eager to return there last season.
With Singer’s No. 1 jockey, Rocco Bowen, sidelined by injuries last year, Wales came on like a closing act in front of a packed house. He won the title with 99 winners, 33 more than runner-up Kevin Orozco.
That success has carried over to Oldsmar, where Wales recently rode seven winners from 26 mounts to earn the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill honor. His winners’ average payoff during that hot streak was $23 and change, and a $2 win bet on all 26 of his mounts would have netted $112.40.
“Every time you look up, you see Gary Wales on a 99-1 shot, but he’s in a perfect spot (during the running of a race),” said trainer Kent Sweezey, who teamed with Wales on $27 and $31 winners.
“As a trainer, you might only get 30 seconds with your rider in the paddock, so you have to spill it all (instructions) to them real quick,” Sweezey said. “I can tell Gary to tuck in here and make sure you do this or try to do this, and he’ll follow through. He’s a smart, confident rider who knows how to win.”
Sweezey said Wales is also willing to help out during training hours. “I saw him out here (Wednesday morning) at 6 a.m. and said ‘Gary, come breeze one at 9,’ and he said ‘OK, I’ll be there,’ ” Sweezey said. “He’s a good, hard-working guy.”
During times when victories were harder to come by, Wales found strength in words of wisdom from fellow jockey Stewart Elliott, best known as the rider of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones.
“When I had the ‘bug’ (apprentice weight allowance) at Philadelphia in 2009, Stewart told me ‘When you ride about 5,000 races, that’s about as good as you’re going to get,’ ” recalled Wales, referring to the experience jockeys need to reach full potential. “I haven’t even gotten there yet.”
But the 34-year-old Wales is close enough – 4,292 career mounts – to be turning heads on both coasts. He and Katie are planning to buy a home in the Tampa Bay area next year, and their cross-country adventures seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
“You’re always a little hesitant about making that kind of move, but I took a shot and it’s worked out,” Wales said. “I believe in myself, and the more horses you ride and the better horses you ride, the more attuned and the more confident you get.”
Katie, a trainer at Suffolk Downs in 2013-2014 and a former veterinary assistant, is an assistant supervisor in the Tampa Bay Downs State Barn. She was featured in a Tampa Bay Downs blog, “Racing In The Sunshine,” in 2014 during their first season here (it’s still on the Internet), and she was forthright about what it takes for a jockey and their spouse to make a career, and a marriage, on the racetrack.
“I think we are each other’s most important support system,” she said then. “Being a jockey is a stressful job – not just riding 1,000-pound animals with minds of their own, but all that jockeys have to go through dealing with owners and trainers. A jockey can get all the praise one day, then he’s the first person everyone blames for a loss the next.
“So if he comes home and needs to vent about a situation that didn’t turn out for the best, I want to be there for him. Gary is not going to be intimidated by another rider, and he knows how to converse with trainers, but there are certain things he is only going to discuss with me.”
That was then, this is now. Much has changed; the important stuff remains the same. “I don’t know if I’d be able to do it without her,” Wales said.