By Scott Taylor
On the first night of Wednesday racing this season at Assiniboia Downs, red-hot jockey Alex Cruz won three times.
Last weekend, young rider Dane Dawkins got on the board with his first win at the Downs.
As the racing season heats up, a handful of first-year jockeys at the Downs are starting to announce their presence with authority. While Cruz now leads all jockeys with nine wins, three seconds, five third-place finishes and $82,619 in winnings, newcomers Ronald Ali has two wins, Dawkins now has one and Oral Bennett, Dillon Khelawan, and apprentices Nirone Austin and Nicolle Disdier are starting to get some mounts.
For Dawkins, 25, who has cracked the Top 10 in every season of racing since he started to ride professionally in 2016, coming to Winnipeg has been a big step up, a step that included an important first.
“This is my first time travelling. It’s my first time off the island,” he explained. “I love it here. When I arrived in April, I saw the snow. It was amazing to me. I had never seen snow before, it was amazing to me. But I love because the owners and trainers are all very nice to me. Steven Gaskin has been good to me. I am confident that things will go well.”
It was on a Gaskin-trained horse named Lipan that Dawkins got his first win. A longshot in the final race of the night, Dawkins brought Lipan home to pay $13.10, $5.90 and $3.50 on a $2 wager. The five-year-old bay gelding won by a length and a half and the 25-year-old jockey had come a long way from Jamaica’s Caymanas Park.
“I was 18 and a friend brought me to the track in Jamaica and showed me around and I decided right there that this was what I wanted to do,” Dawkins said. “In two weeks, he brought me back and I went on a horse and from that day forward, I rode every day. I had four good years riding in Jamaica and now I’m here and I love it.”
While Dawkins finally broke his maiden, Cruz rode three winners on Wednesday — on Princess Becky for trainer Juan Pablo Silva in Race 1; Takahiro’s Dream for Silva in Race 3 and Why So Blue for trainer Steven Gaskin in Race 6. Also, on Wednesday night, newcomer Ali won his second race of the meet on Swear Vengeance for trainer Elton Dickey in Race 5.
Cruz came to Winnipeg with 259 career wins and earnings of $2,600,000 and was riding at Turf Paradise in Phoenix when Silva convinced him to come to Winnipeg. Ali is the former leading rider at Santa Rosa Park in Trinidad.
With a big weekend coming up at the Downs, watch for these first-year riders. Especially Cruz, who has been riding Silva’s horses. Silva leads the trainer’s standings with 10 wins, four seconds, eight thirds and $97,883 in winnings. The Cruz-Silva combination has been gold for bettors so far this spring.
This weekend there are three stakes races at the Downs. The $18,000 Hey Hey Renee Overnight Stakes goes on Friday night. It’s a 5 ½-furlong sprint for three-year-old fillies. Then on Saturday, which is also Ladies Night at the Downs, there is the $18,000 Royal Frolic Overnight Stakes, a 5 1/2-furlong sprint for three-year-old horses and the $25,000 Frank Arnason Sire Stakes, a six-furlong sprint for the top three-year-olds on the grounds. The Arnason is an early preview of some of the local horses who just might make it to the 2019 Manitoba Derby.
Racing on both nights starts with the post parade for Race 1 at 7:15 p.m.
And don’t forget, tonight will be the Celebration of Life for racing legend Ardell Sayler, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the main floor at Assiniboia Downs.