By Mike Henry —-
OLDSMAR, FL. – After a season in which it hosted the winners of two Triple Crown races and a Breeders’ Cup race, Tampa Bay Downs is set to resume its 2017-2018 racing season with Saturday’s “Opening Day” card.
Post time for the first of 10 races is 12:25 p.m. The feature is the 10th race, the $26,500 Lightning City Prep at 5 furlongs on the turf course, with a field of nine older fillies and mares. Also on tap are the first legs of the Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series, with 1-mile races for fillies (sixth race) and colts and geldings (eighth race).
“Having the opportunity to watch Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit and Breeders’ Cup Mile winner World Approval here last season is a testament to our program and our reputation as a proving grounds for champion Thoroughbreds,” said Peter Berube, the track’s Vice President and General Manager.
“It’s time now to look at the possibilities for the upcoming season,” Berube said. “We’re offering the richest stakes schedule in our history, and the positive vibes we’ve received from horsemen, jockeys and fans promise continued growth and even more excitement surrounding our racing product.”
The 2017-2018 stakes schedule, which begins Dec. 16 with a four-stakes bonanza, consists of 28 races worth $3.65-million. The centerpiece of the schedule is the March 10 Festival Day card featuring five stakes worth a combined $1-million, including the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-old Triple Crown prospects.
Visitors to Tampa Bay Downs will be impressed by a new 17-foot-by-30-foot Daktronics LED high-definition video display board rising above the infield tote board. Tampa Bay Downs conducted a “dry-run” of the display board during the Breeders’ Cup World Championships from Del Mar, and numerous observers expressed their excitement at the clarity and brightness of the images.
“The LED video display board is an outstanding addition to our customer experience,” Berube said.
Further enhancing patron convenience and fun is the ability to wager, as well as to order food and drinks and purchase tickets for upcoming special events, directly from the track’s website, www.tampabaydowns.com
By clicking the “Tampa Xpress Lane” (TXL) app on the website home page, Tampa Bay Downs visitors can access MBet, the track’s mobile wagering platform (MBet is available only at Tampa Bay Downs and is not accessible from a remote location).
Beginning Saturday, TXL app users will be able to order food and beverages online by selecting the app, then choosing items and adding them to their cart.
The user will be prompted to provide payment information and an e-mail address, to which an encrypted electronic receipt will be sent. Upon hitting “place order,” the payment will be processed and the order sent to Stand 6 on the first floor of the Grandstand, across from the paddock.
The user will be able to pick up their order at Stand 6 on the first floor of the Grandstand, across from the paddock, after receiving notification through the TXL app that the order has been submitted and is being prepared.
In another website upgrade designed to enhance visitors’ racing experience, Tampa Bay Downs is adding a Spanish-language link that will enable patrons to acquire online program pages printed in Spanish.
The link will also feature live race-day podcasts in Spanish hosted by Luis Ocasio.
“Technology is a big part of our lives, and Tampa Bay Downs is committed to keeping up with those innovations we believe will satisfy our customers’ desire for convenience and up-to-date information,” Berube said.
Tampa Bay Downs will also offer its annual “10 Days of Festivus On-line Handicapping Contest,” which begins Saturday, Dec. 2 and runs through Saturday, Dec. 23. Information and registration will be available on the track website. The free contest gives fans and handicappers a chance to test their skills against the top Oldsmar handicappers across the nation, with a first-place prize of $1,000.
On the racing front, three-time leading trainer Gerald Bennett has returned, stabling 40 horses (plus another five trained by his wife, Mary). Bennett has won the last two Oldsmar training crowns, sending out 50 winners last season.
“I still have that drive to want to be there,” said the 73-year-old Bennett, who has saddled 3,670 career winners. “You have to have that to make you want to get up in the morning. In this game, you’re sleeping at night, but your mind is still going. Our horses are fresh and I think we have a fairly balanced stable, and by the time we get going, I think we should have most of them placed where we want them.”
Bennett, who won four stakes races here last season, views his return to Tampa Bay Downs as a welcome homecoming.
“Not only the horsemen, but you have a lot of nice people who come here on a daily basis who love this place and love racing,” Bennett said. “This is our home and we have a lot of friends here. It’s a good atmosphere for racing. This business is about horsemen, the people in the racing office and the track employees working together to put out a product the public enjoys.”
Also returning from last season’s top-10 training list are past Oldsmar champion Kathleen O’Connell; Dennis Ward; Tom Proctor; Dale Bennett; Arnaud Delacour; Ian Hemingway; Anthony Granitz; John Rigattieri; and Keith Nations.
Ward, who finished third with 32 victories, captured last year’s owners title under his Ridenjac Racing banner with 22 victories. He returns with more than 30 horses and is optimistic he can claim another meeting title and possibly vie for the training crown.
“The biggest key (to success at Tampa Bay Downs) is having horses that fit the conditions,” said Ward. “You have got to plan ahead what kind of horse you want to bring here. Overall, I think I have better horses, and some of them should be coming around (into top form) at different times of the meet.”
Among the notable newcomers to the Tampa Bay Downs training ranks is Michael Stidham, who trained here during the winter of 1979 upon the suggestion of his late father, George Stidham, but has only been back a few times since.
Stidham, who has elected to split his 80-horse stable between Tampa Bay Downs and Fair Grounds in New Orleans this winter, has trained such top Thoroughbreds as recent Breeders’ Cup participants Zipessa and Moon Dash, millionaire Willcox Inn, Upperline and Two Altazano.
“I was an assistant to my dad (in 1979) when the track was still called Florida Downs, and he sent me with about eight horses and told me to learn something,” Stidham recalled. “There wasn’t a turf course yet, of course, and I remember the backside being in pretty tough condition, but it was enjoyable being in the Tampa Bay area and a great learning experience.”
In 2014, Stidham sent out Istanford, a subsequent multiple graded-stakes winner, for a second-place finish in the Grade III Florida Oaks on the Oldsmar turf course. “It’s a beautiful turf course – to me, it looks like one of the better ones in the country,” Stidham said. “And friends who train there say the dirt track is a good, safe surface to train on.”
On the jockeys’ front, six-time leading Oldsmar rider Daniel Centeno will defend last year’s title. His top rival could be three-time champion Antonio Gallardo, who returns after riding elsewhere last season.
Other past Tampa Bay Downs champions expected to return include four-time titleholder Ronnie Allen, Jr., Manoel Cruz and Willie Martinez, along with perennial contenders Pablo Morales, Fernando De La Cruz, Jose Ferrer, Scott Spieth, Dean Butler and Huber Villa-Gomez.
“Tampa is a really cool meet with a lot of nice horses, big fields and tough competition,” said Morales, who won his fourth title at Presque Isle Downs this year with 124 winners and is 15th in North America in 2017 with 192 victories. “You want to do well right off the bat, because this is where you live, and you want to make a good impression on everybody from the beginning.
“I’m hoping (his success at Presque Isle Downs) carries on to this meet,” added Morales, who was third in the 2016-2017 Oldsmar standings with 74 victories. “To be leading rider here would be like a dream come true, but I just want to do well and win as many races as I can. I’m super happy to be here and wishing everybody a safe meet, which is the most important thing.”