OLDSMAR, FL. – You can feel it on the backside at the break of dawn as the first horses hit the track for workouts, and during simulcast action in the Grandstand in the afternoon.
For all the advances the track has made in recent years, it’s a palpable sense that a new era of Thoroughbred racing has dawned on the eve of Tampa Bay Downs’s 98th anniversary season.
Simply put, the electricity is surging through the area’s horse racing community.
Wednesday is Opening Day, and new outfits and new jockeys – some fresh-faced kids, others with faces displaying the gritty nature of the profession – have been lured to compete during the 2023-2024 meet.
Many have arrived to chase a cut of the additional $5.5-million in overnight purse money allocated by the state of Florida, and their presence ensures fans and bettors will feel the reverberations – even if it takes a while for handicappers to sort out the form of all the new horses.
Post time for Wednesday’s first race is 12:15 p.m. The track will be closed next Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, before action resumes on Friday, Nov. 24.
“The purses are pretty much the entire reason” that nine-time Oldsmar leading trainer Jamie Ness has 30 stalls after last competing at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2016-2017 meet. Ness, who also races at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania and Laurel Park in Maryland during the winter, said he would have sent a string to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas without the purse boost.
Instead, he is back where he built a reputation for excellence by sending out 504 winners from 2006 through 2015.
“Tampa is a great place to train horses during the winter, and I really enjoyed the time I spent there,” said Ness, who has trained more than 4,100 career winners. “The (purse) increase gives me the flexibility to tell my owners they can send their horses to Tampa and do well.”
His return has already raised expectations of a season-long duel for the training crown between Ness and Gerald Bennett, who has also won nine Oldsmar training titles, the last eight in a row.
You don’t need an advanced math degree to know that Bennett, with 40 stalls, has the edge going in, but Ness followers know he is capable of making his friendly rival a bit uncomfortable.
“With 30 horses and some coming off layoffs, it (a 10th Oldsmar title) is probably unrealistic,” said Ness, who plans to remain at his Maryland home with his wife and daughters while assistant Cory Jensen manages things here. “But we always run a competitive stable, so we’ll see what happens.”
Obviously, numbers determine a stable’s ability to compete for leading trainer honors, so fans should also look at two-time Tampa Bay Downs champion Kathleen O’Connell, who has 50 stalls. She finished third last season with 27 winners, still a far cry from Bennett’s total of 49.
O’Connell, who started her own racing stable in 1981, became the sport’s leading female trainer in North America by victories last season and could reach the 2,500-victory mark sometime in 2024.
Also back are Juan Arriagada, who saddled 26 winners last season and was also the track’s leading owner; Mike Dini, who had 23 winners; current co-leading Gulfstream Park trainer Victor Barboza, Jr. (21); Darien Rodriguez (20); John Rigattieri (18); Gregg Sacco (16); Eoin Harty (14); Tim Hamm, Maria Bowersock and Victor Carrasco, Jr. (each with 13); and Anthony Granitz (12).
Intriguing newcomers, at least from the aspect of stall allocations, include Jose Francisco D’Angelo (30 stalls), who was tied with Barboza for most winners at Gulfstream entering today; McLean Robertson (25 stalls); and David VanWinkle (25 stalls).
The competition for leading jockey could be just as captivating – or, it could be another runaway for Samy Camacho, who has won the last three titles and four of the last five. Camacho’s meet-high total of 114 last season was more than double that of runner-up Jose Ferrer, and Camacho’s confidence in the ability of his agent, Mike Moran, to land him on many of the best horses is another plus.
In recent seasons, Camacho’s main competition has come from Antonio Gallardo, a five-time Oldsmar champion; Pablo Morales, the runner-up two seasons ago and a nine-time titleholder at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania; six-time Tampa Bay Downs champion Daniel Centeno; and the seemingly ageless Ferrer, who rode 56 winners last season.
Youngsters Jose Batista and Samuel Marin, as well as Marcos Meneses, currently sixth at Gulfstream, and Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., also have the skill and drive to become fan favorites. But their rankings could be challenged by a wave of newcomers seeking to combine the pleasantries of a Tampa Bay area winter with a serious pursuit of their fair share of the added purse money.
That group includes Carol Cedeno, who competed here previously and won five Delaware Park titles from 2015-2020; Mychel J. Sanchez, the leading jockey at Parx with 131 winners through Wednesday; Charlie Marquez, a Maryland product and son of jockey Carlos Marquez, Jr., whose talent will make people forget he’s 20; and Jeremy Rose, best known for winning the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes on Afleet Alex.
After the Opening Day card and the Thanksgiving holiday, Tampa Bay Downs will race on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule, adding Sundays to the mix on Dec. 24. The track’s stakes schedule begins Dec. 2 with a pair of $100,000, 6-furlong events for 2-year-olds: the Inaugural, which is generally contested by colts and geldings, and the Sandpiper for fillies.