Before the 2019-2020 Tampa Bay Downs meeting resumed on Nov. 27, jockey Antonio Gallardo took his wife Polliana and their two children to his hometown of Jerez de la Frontera in Cadiz, Spain to visit with his parents and other relatives.
After a down-to-the-wire duel with good friend Pablo Morales for the Presque Isle Downs riding title (Gallardo prevailed, winning 155 races to 153 for Morales), Gallardo intended to use the two-plus weeks of vacation to enjoy quality family time and get ready for Oldsmar.
It worked on both fronts, but not without a few interruptions.
“I had reporters calling asking me to go to Madrid (almost 400 miles away) for interviews or to be on TV shows,” said Gallardo, “but I didn’t have the time. I wanted to go over there to enjoy my family and relax.”
Gallardo consented to an interview in his hometown with a reporter from the magazine fuera deserie, a lifestyle and leisure supplement of Spain’s El Mundo newspaper. He was the first athlete to appear on the magazine’s cover since soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
The attention was understandable: Gallardo is one of the top “go-to” jockeys at Tampa Bay Downs and Presque Isle Downs, having won four meeting titles at both tracks. He has finished in the top six in races won in North America in five of the last six years, with runner-up finishes in 2015 (to Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano) and 2016 (to Jose Ortiz), and has compiled 1,815 career victories.
The publicity was gratifying, but Gallardo was eager to settle in with his parents, his grandmother and the rest of the clan. “My goal was to take time off and come back fresh, and it worked,” said Gallardo, the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month.
“I came back with a different attitude, because I missed the horses. To me, being a jockey is almost like a hobby, not a job. I love the feeling of power the horses give you, their strength, and how I can feel their energy in the starting gate.”
If you know where Gallardo was seven years ago, you realize he needed to love the animals and the sport to survive in the business. He was a virtual unknown among Tampa Bay Downs horsemen and fans, searching for an opportunity to prove he could compete at a higher level.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that chance came from trainer Kathleen O’Connell, who had encouraged Gallardo to move his tack from south Florida, where he struggled for three seasons, to Oldsmar.
A career turning point occurred when Gallardo and O’Connell teamed to win the 2013 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs with 14-1 shot Flatter This. In essence, there has been no stopping Gallardo since. Later that same year, he won four consecutive stakes races on a single card at Calder (the last three for O’Connell), a precursor to his first Oldsmar riding crown in 2013-2014.
In addition to his eight riding titles, Gallardo has won back-to-back editions of the Grade II Presque Isle Downs Masters on now-6-year-old mare Hotshot Anna. He won the Grade I United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park in 2018 on the Chad Brown-trained Funtastic and has eight career graded-stakes victories.
“It’s crazy what’s happened,” said Gallardo, who retains the down-to-earth personality he arrived here with. “I look back a lot, because you have to remember where you came from. When you aren’t doing well and you start winning, you appreciate it even more. And you keep working hard, because you’re scared to lose and go back.”
The single-season record-holder at Tampa Bay Downs with 147 winners in 2014-2015, Gallardo is off to a typically strong start this season, with 21 victories through 20 days, second in the standings to Samy Camacho.
His agent Mike Moran, who also handles bookings for the defending Oldsmar jockey champion Camacho, says Gallardo’s drive to excel is a major factor in his success. “I can see it in Antonio’s eyes, in his approach,” Moran said. “He’ll tell me, ‘Let’s go check with this (trainer), let’s go check with that guy,’ looking for another winner. Antonio really knows horses, and he’ll give a trainer advice if he thinks it will help that horse win.”
The Gallardos live on a nearby farm, where they keep a couple of pleasure horses and layups from the racetrack. He stays fit doing odd jobs around the farm, swimming in his pool and playing volleyball, as well as riding his Equicizer Mechanical Horse and working out on a rowing machine.
Although he isn’t crazy about getting up at 5 a.m., he is living the life he loves, complete with the joys of family and a “hobby” that has proven extremely lucrative.
“For me as a jockey, the big thing is to be in communication with the horse,” said Gallardo, known as one of the strongest finishing riders at Tampa Bay Downs. “You have to try to understand him (or her). I don’t try to push my horse to get a certain position; I try to talk to him and let him tell me where he wants to be, close or off the pace, whatever.
“I try not to fight him, just let him get comfortable and go with him.”
And by staying on the same page as his mounts, Gallardo ensures numerous chapters remain to be written in his own “rags-to-riches” story.