It was unusually quiet and deserted on the south end of Barn 15 on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch when a visitor stepped under the shed row on a recent morning.
Emerging from one of the stalls with a rub box in one hand and a rub rag in his back pocket, a young man was re-hooking the clips on the webbing when the visitor said he was looking for Darien Rodriguez.
"That would be me," Rodriguez said. "I've just finished doing up my last horse so you caught me at a good time."
Rodriguez was the only person working in and around the stalls that make up the Darien Rodriguez stable that morning because Darien Rodriguez is the only member of the Darien Rodriguez stable staff. The Cuban-born horseman, who came to the United States at age 16, has a string of six horses and is, in every sense of the word, a full-service trainer.
Rodriguez does everything needed to train and care for his runners. He gallops, works, grooms, walks, and feeds all of his horses.
Rodriguez's day starts at 4 a.m., and by the time he feeds in the afternoon and settles his charges in for the night, he can head home at about 6 p.m. If a starter needs to go to the Lasix barn four hours prior to running, it's Rodriguez who takes the horse. If a farrier needs to do a horse's shoes or a veterinarian needs to examine a horse, it's Rodriguez who holds the horse.
So how does he do it?
"You just set up a schedule and try to stick to it." Rodriguez said, while enjoying cold water and a brief break in his tack room. "After a while it works into a rhythm thing."
Rodriguez worked on a farm in his native Cuba before coming to the U.S. in 1996, but hadn't worked with Thoroughbreds until he wound up at ThistleDown in Ohio.
"Miguel Feliciano hired me and I started on the farm, learning the basics, then later I began getting on horses," Rodriguez said. "Later I worked for good trainers like Arnaud Delacour and Joan Scott, and I learned more and more as time went on. Finally I got the money together for one horse, and that horse, Down in Front, won at Suffolk Downs. I went out on my own in 2010 and I've been on my own ever since."
For several years Rodriguez was owner and trainer of every horse in the barn but recently Anthony Borruso, an insurance executive; owner and breeder Bruce Tallisman; and long-time owner and breeder Judson Van Worp have joined Rodriguez as owners. He claimed a turf router named Lighthouse Sound earlier in the meet and won his second race with Descarado, a 4-year-old homebred filly owned by Tallisman.
When asked whether at a time of rising costs, reduced foals, and stiffer competition for owners and purses, a small outfit like his can survive, Rodriguez' answer was simple.
"You can if you do everything yourself," he said. "You can save money if you don't have to pay exercise boys, grooms, and hotwalkers. Of course it would be easier with some help, but it's not that bad. One thing about it, the time goes by fast—and you have to win."
Rodriguez runners have won at better than a 20% clip since 2012 and his starters won at a 34% rate in 2013. His record at the current Tampa Bay meet stands at seven wins, four seconds, and four thirds in 31 starts.
Rodriguez is trying to follow in the footsteps of trainers such as Laz Barrera and Frank Martin, who came from a tiny island nation with two things in common: an uncommon work ethic and a burning desire to compete and succeed.