The 29-year-old Brazilian is heading to Kentucky to ride at Keeneland and will also compete at Indiana Downs, where he has been leading jockey the past two seasons, when that meet starts April 16.
“I did it a little bit the past couple of years, but this year I’m going to ride full-time at both tracks,” he said. “I’ve started to ride for a few more Kentucky stables, so it is a time in my career to try to step up so I can get to the next level.”
Goncalves – who is named to ride in four of Saturday’s six Florida Cup Day stakes, including defending champion Slews Answer in the $75,000 Turf Classic – enters his final day at Tampa Bay Downs this season with 85 victories, 24 more than 2010-11 jockey champion Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Angel Serpa is third with 55 and Rosemary Homeister, Jr. has 51.
There are 16 performances remaining in the 2011-12 season, so Allen would need to average about three winners every two racing days to catch Goncalves.
“I would really like to be the leading rider here, but I’m just going to cross my fingers because anything can happen,” said Goncalves, who has won five riding titles in his career: two apiece at Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park and one at Turfway in Kentucky.
“I think with (four-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey) Daniel Centeno coming back here last month, that is going to help on my side. But I know there is enough time for Ronnie to get it done.”
Goncalves won four races on a single card twice this season. He rode Carolyn Wilson’s 5-year-old mare Arena Elvira to a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the Wayward Lass Stakes on March 17.
His biggest thrill this season, though, occurred Dec. 28, when he scored career victory No. 1,000 aboard Rich Hero for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness. Goncalves finished 2011 with 298 victories, third on the nation’s wins list behind Deshawn Parker and Ramon Dominguez.
The Florida Cup Day program Saturday consists of six stakes for registered Florida-breds worth $75,000 each. All told, Tampa Bay Downs will distribute $538,500 in purses over the 12-race card, which begins with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m.
Tampa Bay Downs, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association invite breeders, owners and trainers to attend a Florida Cup Day luncheon from noon-3 p.m. under the tent adjacent to the paddock. The event is free of charge with proper identification.
The first Florida Cup Day stakes is the First Dude Turf Distaff Stakes, which is the third race on the card. It will be contested at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass. The seven-horse field includes Grade I winner Hooh Why from the barn of trainer Shirley Girten-Drake and Grade III winners Unbridled Humor and Speak Easy Gal.
Next up on the stakes program is the fifth race, the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs on the main track. The morning-line favorite at 9-5 is Hello Prince, who won the Birdonthewire Stakes at Calder on Oct. 1 and finished second in last month’s Grade III Swale Stakes at Gulfstream.
The sixth race is the Dayton Andrews Dodge Sophomore Turf Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass. The 10-horse race appears to be wide-open. The favorite’s role is likely to fall to either Crafty Unicorn, who won the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Championship Stakes-Colts and Geldings Division on March 12, or two-time winner Star Channel from the barn of top trainer Todd Pletcher.
Three-year-old fillies grab the spotlight in the seventh race, the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Stakes at seven furlongs. Multiple-stakes winner Citizen Advocate takes on seven rivals, including Xunlei from the barn of trainer Dale Romans.
Slews Answer, a 5-year-old gelding trained by H. Graham Motion, will be challenged by nine opponents in the eighth race, the Turf Classic Stakes at a mile-and-an-eighth. The field includes Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes winner Roman Tiger and the always-dangerous Allie’s Event, who has finished first or second in 15 of 23 career starts.
Concluding the Florida Cup stakes schedule is the Hilton Garden Inn Sprint Stakes at six furlongs. Heading the nine-horse field is the multiple-stakes winning 4-year-old filly It’s Me Mom, who will be facing colts and geldings for the first time in her 16-race career.
It’s Me Mom, bred and owned by Thomas and Jean Bosch of Holiday, Fla. and trained by Lynne Scace, will be ridden by Jorge Vargas. Her regular rider, Willie Martinez, is at Aqueduct in New York to ride 9-5 morning-line favorite Trinniberg in the Grade III, $250,000 Bay Shore Stakes on the Wood Memorial card.
The Hilton Garden Inn Sprint field includes another distaffer, Farnsworth Stables LLC’s 5-year-old mare Amor de Palacio, who is 12-for-12 in her career in Panama and Venezuela while racing at distances ranging from five furlongs to a mile-and-an-eighth. Not to be overlooked is Muckaluck Stable, LLC’s 6-year-old gelding Tommy’s Memory, who won this race in 2010.
Jockeys Scott Spieth and Daniel Centeno each rode three winners on Friday’s card. Spieth now has 4,001 victories in his career (see other story on http://www.tampabaydowns.com).