Rocco Bowen has become a major player at Emerald Downs.
But he didn't always get to ride the favorites and the big-race stakes horses. He wasn't always a jockey to watch on the racing program. He wasn't always the guy Emerald Downs trainers hoped they would get to employ on their horses.
That is, until Trainer Tom Wenzel presented Bowen with the opportunity to ride Makors Finale in the Emerald Derby on August 12 of last year. Washington Horse Racing Hall of Famer Gallyn Mitchell was slated to ride then 3-year-old Washington-bred that day, but was forced out of action due to an injury.
When opportunity knocked, Bowen answered with a picture-perfect ride, hustling Makors Finale to the early lead and holding off Italian Boy for a half-length victory in the 1-1/8-mile race. The triumph launched Bowen's career to heights previously unknown to the Barbados native.
"People really saw that I could ride [after I won the Emerald Derby] because I was kind of an underdog," Bowen said. "People were bypassing me, but from then on I got put on some nice horses, and people started opening their eyes that I could really get the job done."
All Bowen did in 2012 was garner 50 first-place finishes and $501,788 in earnings at Emerald Downs. So far this year, he's racked up 51 wins on his way to the Gottstein Futurity Sunday, where he will ride Decatur Princess, and is currently tied with Juan Gutierrez 0.
with six stakes wins at the meet.
It was a long road for Bowen to become a leading rider in Auburn, Wa. The 24-year-old won his first race in May 2004. He was a regular at Portland Meadows until he broke his leg during a race Jan. 2, 2012. Doctors told him he would need nine months to recover, but in the middle of March 2012, Bowen returned to Emerald Downs, and five months later, Makors Finale "Put me on the map," he said.
But Bowen put himself on the map by utilizing his skills and work ethic. Wenzel said he's been impressed with Bowen's ability to gauge the pace of a race within "a few ticks" of his actual times. Bowen has also kept good communication with Wenzel on how he plans to ride each race. Complementing these traits is that Bowen is a hard worker who sets high expectations for himself.
"He's just a smart rider," Wenzel said. "He's well-spoken, he analyzes races, and he's pretty game. You want someone that's hungry and is willing to give you a hundred percent effort at all times."
Wenzel took note of Bowen's ability to bring the best out of long shot horses.
"I had noticed Rocco had been able to get horses out of the gate and he'd been able to run good and finish good. I noticed he was finishing on horses that weren't real public choices and getting quite a bit of run out of some of these horses," Wenzel said.
Bowen also rode Wenzel-trained 3-year-old filly Stopshoppingdebbie to an unprecedented sweep of the four stakes for sophomore fillies in 2013, helping the rider tie Gutierrez for leading stakes rider. Without Wenzel, such opportunities may not have been possible for Bowen.
"Other trainers put me to the point I am today, but Tom Wenzel is the main reason I'm here," he said.
Bowen is there not just because of Wenzel, but his family. He said he dedicates himself to racing so he can support his wife and three children: Rylan, Caden and Shayden. As difficult as it is for Bowen to balance home life and the challenges of horse racing, horse racing is an essential part of Bowen's life.
"Horse racing is the only life I know," he said. "So I take it pretty seriously, and I don't take it for granted. I was really blessed with a lot of golden opportunities, and I try to grasp them with both hands, because these opportunities don't come around but twice in a lifetime. I try to make everything count."
Even though Bowen has established himself as a top rider at Emerald Downs, he has distributed the credit to those around him. Not just to Wenzel, but to Emerald Downs all-time wins leader Mitchell. After being replaced by Bowen atop Makors Finale in the Emerald Derby, Mitchell gave Bowen pointers on how best to ride the Makors Mark colt. Without Mitchell, Bowen said, he never would have won the Derby.
The advice didn't stop coming that day, and Bowen continued to use Mitchell as a resource to improve his riding. Mitchell is happy to oblige. He recently noticed Bowen was having a difficult time switching sticks. Instead of picking moments to switch sticks, Mitchell told Bowen to switch more often as to make the action habitual, and thus easier.
Mitchell's wife and Bowen's agent, Denise Mitchell, called Bowen the "Poor man's rider," a jockey who never quits and can win aboard long shots. As highly as she touted Bowen as a rider, she spoke of him just as highly as a person.
"A lot of times the men will have the wife take the baby when it's crying, but he's holding her the whole time," she said. "He's a great dad, and he's a very good husband."
Before his Emerald Downs tenure took off, Bowen was winning some of his races on long shots. But now that he's riding horses like Makors Finale and Stopshoppingdebbie in the feature races, Bowen has established himself as one of the premier jockeys at Emerald Downs.
"I always want to be that guy, and this year I've put myself in a spot to be that guy,” Bowen said. "It's hard to get to the top and it's twice as hard to stay on top."