Thoroughbred Jockey From Barbados I work hard, leave it all on the track & love what I do
Oaklawn: Rocco Bowen, 100% Healthy Again, Pictures Big Things In His Future
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 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 on 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-’16 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?