At age 22, Tyler Gaffalione has already piled up four leading rider titles at his home racetrack, Gulfstream Park, and is still beaming from a surreal 4th of July when he booted home seven winners in 11 races. Throughout the first seven months of 2017, Gaffalione has thrived with a new agent, Matt Muzikar, who previously booked rides for four-time Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano. Gaffalione, who himself received the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey in 2015, has been far and away the leading rider at Gulfstream this spring and summer after holding his own against the likes of Castellano, Luis Saez and John Velazquez during the track's championship meet over the winter.
The pieces are clearly in place for Gaffalione to join the elite ranks in the not-so-distant future. He has already made inroads with top trainers Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, Chad Brown and Christophe Clement and increasingly is picking up stakes assignments around the country. At Pletcher's behest, Gaffalione will travel to Delaware Park to ride Master Plan in Saturday's Grade 3 Kent Stakes, and Muzikar set him up with three other stakes mounts on the card, including Hone In in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap.
From there, as Gaffalione maintains his steady business at Gulfstream, he will also branch out to Saratoga Race Course during the upcoming meet, riding Monday and Wednesday cards when there will be no live racing in South Florida.
By this time next year, he very well could be riding in New York full-time.
"The last six months have been beyond my wildest dreams," said Gaffalione, whose highlights have included wins over consecutive weekends for Maker in the Grade 3 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and the Grade 2 Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds, along with a second-place finish on the Pletcher-trained Patch in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, which subsequently yielded his first-ever Kentucky Derby mount.
"I went into the winter looking to have a good showing in the championship meet against those top riders,” he added, “and then from there my main goal this year was to try to win a couple graded stakes and ride in more of the biggest races and get my name out there, plus to keep competing for the Gulfstream titles. If you had asked me in January if we could do this much in six months, I wouldn't have believed it."
Ties to Pletcher, who swept the Gulfstream winter and spring training titles, have opened up doors for Gaffalione, and he has taken advantage, winning with nearly 33 percent of his mounts for the barn. Pletcher said he foresees a "great future" for the third-generation jockey.
"He's a very well-rounded rider," Pletcher said. "He analyzes races astutely and is also capable of making adjustments during the race, has a great attitude and communicates thoroughly."
Gaffalione's seven-win day tied a Gulfstream record, and he was especially thrilled to be linked in history with Jerry Bailey, who rode seven winners at the track on Florida Derby Day in 1995. Gaffalione grew up in nearby Davie, Fla., idolizing the Hall of Famer Bailey, and pointed to him as the jockey who had the biggest influence on his riding style other than his father, Steve Gaffalione, who won 800-plus races in a 20-year career.
It was the elder Gaffalione who shared a quiet dinner with Tyler after his momentous July 4th.
"I rode 11 horses that day and I was just so tired, we went home and had dinner and that was it," said Gaffalione, who counts a round of golf and an afternoon at the beach as an ideal day off from the races.
Muzikar said Gaffalione's work ethic, demonstrated in his willingness to travel and ride seven days a week between Gulfstream and Saratoga, has been a big factor in their success.
"He has everything it takes to be a superstar," Muzikar said. "He is 22 but he has only been riding for three years, so he is still pretty young in riding experience compared to a lot of guys who start their career at 16 or 17. He already does so many things really well and not only on the racetrack. Off the track, his personality and his work ethic are very good. On the track, to me, he rides a great race. He lets the race unfold and doesn't panic, no matter the situation. He loves to save ground, he is a strong finisher, and he is smart, and that's key when the majority of the riders are separated by who makes the least amount of mistakes.
“The sky is the limit in my opinion, and going little by little and experiencing different racetracks and situations in big races, I think that is the best way rather than to just throw him into the deep end where he has to sink or swim."
Gaffalione, moving into his long-term ambitions, said next spring at the end of the Gulfstream winter meet would be the logical point for him to switch his base to New York.
"That is the goal, to potentially move our tack to New York, but we will play it by ear and do what Matt has the confidence in us doing at that time," he said.