With eight victories in the month of February alone, Dale Bennett is a clear-cut winner of the Zerillo's Italian Grill Trainer of the Month Award.
Like any trainer, Dale Bennett would love to have a Triple Crown candidate in his barn. But it wouldn’t lessen his affection for horses such as Gimmeadrink, an 8-year-old gelding whose clever name is only a small part of his appeal.
Last February, Bennett claimed the Florida-bred son of Gimmeawink-Pascali, by Great Above, for $6,250. Although Gimmeadrink earned his third consecutive victory that day, he was only a step or two above the bottom rung of the claiming ladder.
Bennett saw a spark in the veteran campaigner, and by summer’s end he had won eight of nine starts, showing enough competitiveness for Bennett to enter him in the Grade III Washington Park Handicap on the all-weather track at Arlington in Illinois. Although he finished fifth, Gimmeadrink was beaten only two lengths by the winner, then-4-year-old Avanzare.
Partly for his work with Gimmeadrink – two-for-two in starter/optional claiming company at the current Tampa Bay Downs meeting – and mostly for saddling eight winners in February, it is time to raise a toast to Bennett as the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month.
“It’s very fulfilling when you can claim a horse for a good owner who you’ve been with for a long time and turn that horse around,” said the 42-year-old Bennett, who trains Gimmeadrink for long-time client John D. Santina’s Savoy Stable, LLC. “The older horses are just as easy to train, and they usually know what they’re doing.
“When you get one that tries and is happy competing, you just let them do the job and it usually works out.”
Bennett is hardly averse to training younger horses. He has entered Savoy Stable's Distorted Type in Saturday's Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf, a race that is part of the track's Festival Day 35 celebration.
Distorted Type is 2-for-2 on the Oldsmar main surface this meeting; Bennett believes the quality of her performances merits giving her a chance on the grass.
“She is by Distorted Humor (out of the Storm Cat mare Stormy Season), so she is well-bred for the turf, and given her personality, she seems like she will run on anything,” Bennett said. “It’s a step up in class, but she has gone through her conditions and when one goes through their conditions that quickly, they probably deserve the chance to take a shot.”
Other Bennett horses with a bright future include Santina’s 3-year-old Fancy Man, who broke his maiden at first asking Feb. 19, and Media Time, another Santina-owned sophomore who has two seconds in two maiden special weight races.
Throughout his training career – which began with a victory at the old Detroit Race Course in 1998 – Bennett has shown a skill for knowing when and where to enter his horses. His 22.2 percent career strike rate is in the upper percentile of all conditioners, and he is at it again at the current meeting with 12 victories from 47 starts, despite failing to win a race at Tampa Bay Downs until the calendar turned to 2015.
Knowing “when and where” is one of countless lessons Bennett absorbed growing up around the barn with his father, 70-year-old Gerald Bennett, who sits atop the Oldsmar standings with 23 victories and has saddled 3,488 winners in his remarkable career.
“I got off to a slow start here and had to make some adjustments, but my father always taught me those are the times you keep your feet on the ground, keep moving forward and keep doing what you do,” Dale said.
“We got here a little late (from his summer-fall base in Illinois) this year, and . … we didn’t start searching for races until a couple of week after we got here. But everything has started coming together as of late,” Dale said. “A big factor in my success is having good owners who allow me to run their horses where they can win and be competitive.
“When you can put horses in the right spots, at the right time – when they are doing well – and stay true to that, you’ll normally get good results,” he said.
Bennett’s wife, Denise, handles the business end of their operation – “putting together partnerships, billing, ordering supplies, handling payroll,” he said. Their 21-year-old daughter Donna has a 5-month-old son, and their 5-year-old daughter, Haleigh, is a regular visitor to the winner’s circle.
It’s somewhat unusual for Dale and his father to enter a horse in the same race, but it occurs every so often throughout the meeting. They do not have a rivalry, but Dale says neither cuts the other any slack under any circumstances.
“We’re both competitors, and if we have horses in the same race, I want to win as badly as he does,” said Dale. “But whether he beats me or I beat him, we’re extremely happy for the other. I have looked up to him my entire life. We have different styles of training, but we share the same desire to win.”