Rocco Motivated for First Gulfstream Season
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Joe Rocco Jr. has established himself as a solid journeyman jockey for the past 12 years while bouncing from track to track in the Mid-Atlantic region, never staying in one place long enough to put down roots.
Just winning his fair share of races, though, is no longer enough for him, now that the 29-year-old jockey has a family to support. The son of veteran jockey Joe Rocco wants a better life for his wife, Jamie, and two sons, Brodie, 3, and Luke, 3 months, who are his motivation for riding full time at Gulfstream Park for the first time.
“I feel like it’s going in the right direction. It seems like for years I kind of stood in my way. Since I’ve been with my wife and have had the kids, everything kind of clicked,” said Rocco, who was born in Hollywood, Fla. “I’m more focused, more dedicated. More so, I have a reason to do it. Once you have people depending on you, you have to get out there and do it.”
Rocco captured the 2011 riding title at Delaware Park with 94 wins, 20 more than his nearest rival, providing him added impetus to try Gulfstream after riding at Oaklawn Park last winter.
“This year at Delaware is the best I’d ever done, so it just seemed like the logical time to move to the next level,” he said. “We had some business coming here and some business going to Oaklawn. I made the decision to come here because you bring more business coming back north from here, we thought.”
Rocco got off to a fast start, riding two winners on the opening-day card of Gulfstream’s 2011-2012 meeting, riding the Anthony Dutrow-trained Ancient Rome to victory in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes and the Graham Motion-trained Grip Hands for a maiden-breaking score over turf.
“I feel like I’m riding now better than I ever have, which is why we took and shot and came down here. Obviously, you want to progress and get to the next level,” said Rocco, who tied a Delaware record by riding six winners on a single card on July 27.
He never gave a thought of doing anything other than follow in the footsteps of his father, who has ridden 3,714 winners and counting. Among his favorite moments during his career have come while riding in races against his father.
“I think I’m up on him, 3-2. We’ve been in stretch duels to the wire. It’s a lot of fun. We catch a lot of trash talk after, whoever loses,” he said. “I have friends of mine whose dads rode and they never got a chance to ride together. So it’s pretty cool having pictures on the wall of us going to the wire.”
Rocco has fond childhood memories of being home-schooled in riding by his dad, whose quest for 4,000 wins has been temporarily halted by a neck injury suffered in a spill at Suffolk Downs last July
“Every day and night before I started, we would watch replays. I would be on the Equicisor in front of the TV and he’d pick out a jockey for me to watch from start to finish, just to learn,” said Rocco. “My dad would have me watch Johnny (Velazquez) a lot because he thought he looked better on a horse than anyone else. He’d have me watch Jose Santos ride the grass, because he thought Santos rode the grass better.”
Rocco won aboard his very first mount at Tampa Bay Downs in 1999 courtesy of trainer Sam Cronk.
“He put me on steam,” said Rocco with a smile while recalling his maiden victory aboard Rainbow’s Raja.
Rocco has won more than 850 races since that maiden score, including a career- best 135 victories this year.
“Everyone always used to tell me I was a grass rider. I’d get frustrated at that. When you stay up north in the winter time and grass racing ends, your business falls apart,” he said. “I’ve gotten more aggressive the last few years and put horses in a position where they have a shot to do the best they can.”
By riding at Gulfstream this winter, Rocco has put himself in a position to take his career to a new level and his family to a better life.