Halfway through Gulfstream Park‘s spring meet, apprentice jockey Tyler Gaffalione looks to have turned a corner.
The 20-year-old rider, who is following in the footsteps of his father, Steve Gaffalione, a winner of more than 800 races throughout his 20-year riding career, is currently leading Gulfstream’s rider standings with 24 victories from 135 mounts. The success for Gaffalione comes in a jockey colony that includes veterans, Eclipse Award finalists, and a Hall of Fame member in Edgar Prado.
A South Florida native, Gaffalione won a career-high four races May 1 and captured his first stakes win two days later aboard Celebrity Star in the Sunrise Stakes.
Based in South Florida year-round, Gaffalione competed with the best riders in the country during the 2014-2015 Championship Meet at Gulfstream, electing to stay at his home track rather than travel to a less-competitive meet, where he could perhaps win more races. After ending the season as the meet’s top apprentice, Gaffalione said he benefited from the experience. He attributes his improved riding in part to what he learned from the winter jockey colony.
“It was the best thing I ever decided to do, was to stay here this winter,” Gaffalione said. “I learned so much from guys like Javier (Castellano), John Velazquez, (Edgar) Prado, for sure—he’s been a big help—Joel Rosario, Julien Leparoux, Rajiv (Maragh). They’re great riders, good guys, and when you ride with them, you learn some of their habits—what they’re going to do, when they do it, kind of like their tendencies. It really helped me out a lot.”
In addition to Prado, who rode Barbaro to victory in the 2006 Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2008, Gaffalione also singled out Castellano, Gulfstream’s leading rider for the past four winter seasons, as someone who specifically went out of his way to help him.
“Javier was right next to me—his valet is next to my valet—and on the first day (of the winter meet), he came up to me and started talking to me,” Gaffalione said. “Every now and then, I’d ride some of the horses he’d ridden before, and he’d ride horses that I’d ridden before, and he’d come up and ask me (about them), and I’d ask him. It was great, especially coming from someone like that.”
Trainers noticed Gaffalione’s hard work. Ralph Nicks and Peter Walder, both among the top 10 in Gulfstream’s trainer standings at the current spring meeting, regularly put Gaffalione on their horses and have been impressed with his development.
“He’s a good kid with a good work ethic,” Nicks said. “He presents himself well. My first good impression of him was when he came to the barn, and it was obvious that he was going to study his races and listen to a lot of the quality jockeys that were well-established in their careers. It wasn’t all about him. It was about how good he could do and the things he could do to make himself better.
“He was very impressive at the word go,” Nicks added. “I said it on TV during the winter—I was comfortable riding him even though he was a bug boy, because that’s something I don’t normally do. But his talent level, I think, exceeds what normal apprentices do at this time in their careers.”
With Walder, there is even a family connection.
“I rode him during the winter on a few and now there’s more opportunity for him,” he said. “He’s taken a steady progression and he seems to be riding smarter. He looks to save ground and not blow the turns, and he pays attention when you give him instructions. He looks you in the eye and pays attention rather than looking off and wandering. You can tell that he’s already looked at the race and analyzed it himself. He’s progressing. It helps that his dad was a rider, so he can give him pointers as well. His dad won some races for my grandfather way back when, so it’s pretty cool that Tyler is winning races for me now.”
Steve Gaffalione continues to play a role in his son’s life and riding career, calling him between races to congratulate him and give him pointers. Having had the example of his father to learn from, Tyler knew from a young age that he wanted to follow the same career path.
“I used to ride my bike and pretend that it was a horse. I had a tree branch as a whip,” Gaffalione recalled. “I started galloping when I was 10 or 11. I got my first Equisizer when I was 12 and it really helped me. I used to pretend to ride 10 or 15 races a day. It was great.”
Waiting to take out his jockey’s license until he graduated from high school, Gaffalione spent his summer vacations in Ocala galloping horses, an activity he says helped him hone his skills as a rider. When he turned 19, he officially became a licensed jockey in Florida and won his first race on just his third career mount Sept. 7, 2014. To date, he has won 56 races from 539 mounts. He took command of the jockey standings at Gulfstream May 3.
“The first day I was up there, I came running down to (clerk of scales) Victor (Sanchez) and said, ‘Do you see this?’ Gaffalione said. “He said to me, ‘You better take a picture of that.’ So I did, and I sent it to my family and everyone. It’s amazing. It’s like a dream.”
Gaffalione plans to stay at Gulfstream long-term and hopes to continue his strong riding.
“I want to maintain what I’m doing now—keep riding winners, stay healthy, keep making good decisions, keep riding for the trainers that I ride for,” he said. “If I can do that, I might be alright.
“This is my home track. This is where I watched my father and my grandfather ride, so I’ve always wanted to ride here.”