Bowen Determined to Succeed at Oaklawn
As a successful jockey, Rocco Bowen has had his picture taken hundreds of times following a race. That’s a perk for winning.
Now, pictures have become even more of a motivation for the determined Bowen, 31, specifically two that he said hang in an important travel hub in his native Barbados, a small Caribbean island northeast of Venezuela.
One of those pictures, Bowen said, is of Patrick Husbands, the gold standard for Barbadian riders and an eight-time Sovereign Award winner as the outstanding jockey in Canada. The other is of celebrated Barbadian singer/actress Rihanna.
Bowen said he hopes one day to see a third picturing hanging in Grantley Adams International Airport. His picture.
“No, I’m serious,” Bowen said. “That’s the only two people – they’re ambassadors. That’s my goal, man, to have my picture in the airport because everyone comes through the airport.”
Bowen’s quest to add to his photo portfolio has him at Oaklawn, where he is riding for the first time this year after a debilitating arm injury cost him approximately 1 ½ years in the saddle, threatened his livelihood and led to a career U-turn in 2020 after once dominating the racing landscape in the Pacific Northwest.
Bowen has already recorded two milestones in his comeback. His 1,000th career North American victory came Nov. 11 at Indiana Grand, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Bowen also won his first race at historic Churchill Downs earlier in the year.
“I feel great physically,” Bowen said. “I’m 100 percent.”
Born and raised in Barbados, Bowen’s hook to racing was through his father, who owned a couple of cheap horses. Bowen said he began riding match races in the “pasture” when he was 8 or 9, attended jockey school and made his professional debut at 15.
“It didn’t come natural,” Bowen said of his early days as a rider. “My dad always told me that jockeys are born to do it, but I wouldn’t say I was a natural. I had a lot to learn. I really didn’t look good and stuff. My dad always had a lot of faith in me. He always thought I was going to go far.”
Bowen said he won 21 races as a jockey in Barbados. Although Barbados has year-round racing, Bowen said opportunities there are limited because of a truncated racing calendar. Bowen said that led his family to pool their finances and, following Husband’s lead, send him to Canada at 16 to continue his career.
Bowen landed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and rode his first race at Hastings Park April 28, 2007.
After cutting his teeth in Canada, Bowen eventually became a star in the Pacific Northwest. He became the first Bajan jockey to win a riding title in the United States at the 2015-2016 Portland Meadows meeting and was champion jockey three consecutive years (2016, 2017 and 2018) at Emerald Downs in suburban Seattle.
Bowen never had a chance to capture a fourth consecutive Emerald Downs riding title after being injured during training hours in September 2018. Bowen said he damaged his shoulder and suffered a concussion after being thrown to the ground when a rein a broke on a horse he was breezing.
“I was out for 25 minutes,” Bowen said. “Normal morning. I just remember getting on the horse in the barn. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Bowen’s injury occurred during the closing weeks of the Emerald Downs meeting. The jockey had a meet-best 97 victories and was trying to reach triple digits for the third consecutive year after finishing with 110 in 2016 and 126 in 2017.
“I was not going to let that injury stop me, getting the three wins,” Bowen said. “It was something I never would have lived down. It was something I really wanted to do.”
Bowen said he took a week off and resumed riding after being cleared by a doctor. He finished with 109 victories. But Bowen wouldn’t ride again until June 4, 2020, at Belterra Park, owing to the shoulder injury that triggered numbness in his right hand.
Bowen said he was in so much pain at the end of the 2018 Emerald Downs meeting that he remembers once having to use his left arm to raise his right after awakening from a restless night of sleep.
“I ended up riding and I just put the horse in the middle of the racetrack,” Bowen said. “I didn’t put myself in a bad spot because I’m riding with one hand. Just was determined because it took me so much to get to the top of Emerald that I was not going to let that hand stop me. I kind of had that feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to ride that winter, so that would have played with me all the time. Even being leading rider, I wasn’t going to stop at 97 wins. I just kept on pushing.”
Bowen said he initially believed he would miss “three or four months” because of the injury, but months stretched into more than a year because of lingering problems. Bowen said he didn’t undergo surgery and time finally erased the pain.
“The thought of never riding again, that almost took away my heart,” Bowen said.
Bowen said he had planned to make his comeback last summer at Arlington Park, even signing a one-year lease on an apartment three minutes from the track. Yet another roadblock: No racing (COVID-19).
But Bowen was so hungry to return to the saddle that in late May he began driving 3 ½ hours each day from suburban Chicago to Anderson, Ind., to work horses for trainer Genaro Garcia in preparation for Indiana Grand’s opening, delayed until June 15, (COVID-19).
With no place to stay in Indiana, Bowen said he would drive back to Arlington Heights after training hours, only to start the process over the following day at 1 a.m. (Central). Bowen said the track closed at 11 a.m. (Eastern).
“The first day, I was late for work, an hour,” Bowen said. “I didn’t know they had a time change. That’s what I had to do. Once I got my first paycheck, then I got a hotel.”
Bowen’s first victory in his comeback came aboard the Garcia-trained Hyndford June 5 at Belterra Park. Bowen’s first mount at Churchill Downs, White Wolf, became the jockey’s first winner there five days later. Bowen, as a regular, rode 39 winners in his Indiana Grand debut to finish eighth in the standings. His mounts earned $934,902.
“The first race I rode, I got (disqualified), the very first race of the meet, opening day, but not for lack of trying,” Bowen, jokingly, said. “I was like, ‘Man, people are going to think this is a wild and crazy guy.’ But by the fifth race of the day, I won on my favorite horse since my comeback, Unmoored, for Mr. Genaro Garcia. I won three races on that horse last summer.”
White Wolf’s trainer, Paul Holthus of Hot Springs, has been another one of Bowen’s biggest supporters in his comeback. They teamed for six victories at Indiana Grand and have continued their relationship this year at Oaklawn.
“He’s a good kid,” Holthus said. “Really like him. Good attitude. He’s a good enough rider, for sure.”
Bowen, whose agent/mentor is retired jockey Joe Steiner, said his plan is to remain based in the Midwest. Asked why he didn’t make his comeback at Emerald Downs, Bowen said it would have been a sign of weakness.
“To me, that would have been easy,” Bowen said. “It probably would have taken me another three years to leave again.”
Get the picture?
Down to his last shot, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen kept his Oaklawn streak alive when Reelfoot ($9.40) won Friday’s ninth and final race under Ricardo Santana Jr.
Reelfoot represented the meet-best 13th victory for Asmussen, who entered Saturday having at least one Oaklawn winner during the last nine racing days, a streak that dates to the closing-day 2020 program. During that span, Asmussen had 16 winners. Dating to April 19, 2020, Asmussen’s only winless day at Oaklawn was May 1 – penultimate day of the 57-day meeting – and he had amassed 23 victories over that period of 16 racing days.
Asmussen had six horses entered Saturday at Oaklawn.
Reelfoot also represented Asmussen’s 709th career Oaklawn victory. Asmussen became only the second trainer in history to reach 700 victories at Oaklawn when he recorded a triple Jan. 23. The late Bob Holthus, a nine-time Oaklawn training champion, won more than 850 races in Hot Springs.
Asmussen is seeking his record-tying 11th Oaklawn training title after winning the crown in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a double Friday at Oaklawn, winning the third race with Jewel Azul ($9) and the sixth race with Appraisal ($15). Lukas entered Saturday with 326 career Oaklawn victories. … Kelsi Harr, Oaklawn’s leading apprentice jockey in 2020, recorded her first victory of the meeting when first-time starter Lady Astrid ($13.40) closed with a rush to win Friday’s second race. Lady Astrid also marked Harr’s first victory at Oaklawn as a journeyman. Lady Astrid is trained by Harr’s fiancée, Robert N. Cline. … Brad Cox, Oaklawn’s third-leading trainer last year, entered Saturday with 1,499 career North American victories, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Cox had five horses entered at three venues across the country Saturday, including two at Oaklawn, where he had eight victories through Friday to rank second in the standings. Cox began Saturday with 213 career victories at Oaklawn. … The $150,000 Downthedustyroad Stakes for Arkansas-bred female sprinters, 3 and up, closed Thursday with 26 nominations, including 2019 winner Bye Bye J; Sekani, winner of the $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes for 3-year-old Arkansas-bred female sprinters last year at Oaklawn; and The Mary Rose, a Jan. 30 state-bred allowance winner sprinting. The 6-furlong race is Feb. 20. … First post Sunday at Oaklawn is 12:30 p.m. (Central), a half-hour earlier than normal, to accommodate the Super Bowl. Probable post time for Sunday’s ninth and final race is 4:30 p.m., an hour before kickoff.
Photo Credit: Robert Yates