Rocco Bowen wants to ride regularly against some of the world’s best jockeys someday, but for now he is satisfied being the best at Emerald Downs.
For three consecutive seasons, the Barbados native has dominated the jockey standings, racking up 345 victories at the Auburn racetrack during that span. The second most is Eswan Flores with 147.
Bowen, if he can come back fully from injuries that have sidelined him more than six months, will be a big favorite to win a fourth straight title at this year’s meet. If he can do that, he would become the first rider in Western Washington history to win four straight titles. He won’t be able to resume riding by opening day, which begins Saturday at Emerald Downs, but he hopes to be cleared soon.
“It would mean a lot to me,” said Bowen, 29. “A lot of people think it’s pretty easy, but it’s very hard. To stay consistent, and rack those kind of numbers up, it’s pretty hard. After awhile, people think, ‘it’s easy,’ but that is when you slip up.”
And for jockeys, a devastating injury is a possibility in every single race. Bowen’s string of good racing luck ended in early September when he suffered a concussion and a separated shoulder when the reins on his horse broke in a morning workout. The other shoulder was separated from long-term wear-and-tear.
Bowen, who has three kids ranging from 5 to 9, decided not to rush back from his injuries as he had in the past.
“I let the doctor tell me when I am ready,” Bowen said. “Before, I would ride even though I was still injured, that’s how hungry I am (to succeed).”
Taking the past several months to heal rather than heading south to ride might have been smart, but it wasn’t easy.
“It was really, really hard the first three months,” Bowen said, who has enjoyed the time with his family, but is eager to resume competing. “This was really a difficult change for me. But I am not used to riding with a fresh body. We’ll see what I can do with a fresh body.”
Riding race horses was Bowen’s dream from the time he was a little boy in Barbados. He started riding horses when he was 6 and 7.
“Wherever I could find a horse, that is where you would find me,” Bowen said.
When Rocco was 12, his father bought part ownership of a racehorse, and Rocco started working at the racetrack in Bridgeport, the capital of Barbados. He cleaned stalls, gave horses baths and did a lot of the unglamorous but necessary tasks at a stable.
“I didn’t get money, I did it because I wanted to,” Bowen said. “Getting to know horses like that when I was young, I think really gives me an edge.”
Not long after, Bowen went to jockey school, with his father quitting his long-term job so he could transport his son.
“He really believed in me and so did my mom,” Bowen said.
At 15, Bowen rode in his first race, in Barbados. At 17, he moved to Canada to begin riding full-time, and made his way to Emerald Downs a few years later, where he has been a fixture the past seven seasons and is No. 5 on the track’s career win list.
In 2012, during his first season at Emerald Downs when he was trying to make a name for himself against more established riders, he got a big break.
Trainer Tom Wenzel needed a replacement for Gallyn Mitchell to ride Makors Finale in the Emerald Downs Derby. Wenzel chose Bowen.
“He was a speed horse (one that likes to take the early lead) and I was looking for someone who I thought could handle a speed horse,” Wenzel said. “What I had seen from Rocco at that time, was even though he wasn’t on a lot of good horses, when he was on a speed horse he was able to keep those horses going and often they were longer shots on the board, so I could tell he could finish and ride a speed horse.”
Bowen certainly proved that on Makors Finale, winning the Emerald Downs Derby in wire-to-wire fashion. A few weeks later, the duo combined to win a Washington Cup race. That began a thriving working relationship between Wenzel and Bowen, and it also raised Bowen’s stature with other owners.
Wenzel did more than just give Bowen the opportunity to ride in big races. He encouraged Bowen to study the races he would be riding in and showed Bowen how to read the Brisnet past performances that is similar to the Daily Racing Form.
Bowen spends at least a couple of hours a day handicapping the foes he will be racing against, which he said gives him another edge by “being more prepared than my opponents, and it took my game to a new level.”
“He is probably the most important person in my career,” Bowen said of Wenzel. “A lot of people didn’t realize how good I was. Without him, I don’t think anyone else would have given me the opportunity.”
Bowen’s favorite horse ever is Stopshoppingdebbie, who was trained by Wenzel and won the first nine races of her career at Emerald Downs before losing at Santa Anita in Southern California in her final race.
It was the only time Bowen has ridden at Santa Anita, and he would like to become a regular there. He was ready to make the move last spring, but he was injured in a spill at Golden Gate in Northern California last March, and he started to get fewer mounts. So he came back to Emerald and dominated again.
The long-term dream of moving to bigger things has not diminished, but his focus now is squarely on winning another riding title at Emerald. He said he won’t change a thing, riding in most races and giving the same effort each time, whether he is on a cheap claiming horse or a champion.
“I got an opportunity and I grasped it with both hands,” said Bowen, who said his family in Barbados keeps close tabs on his career. “I am going to give 110 percent each race. These trainers, they spend more than 23 hours a day with the horses, and they spend too much time for me to mess it up.”
It’s a career that should continue to rise.
“He just progressed as a rider and just sharpened his skills,” Wenzel said. “Even though I noticed him because I thought he was a good speed rider, he learned to ride all kinds of horses. He got better at his craft and has been pretty dedicated to it. As long as he stays focused and dedicated, he’s going to continue to do great.”