As Opening Days go, the start of the 2013-14 Thoroughbred racing season at Tampa Bay Downs on Monday was a relatively subdued affair.
But the decision by track management to institute a two-day Summer Festival of Racing on June 30 and July 1 to gain year-round live racing status under Florida statute – thereby gaining full control over its simulcast product, which will result in an increase in horsemen’s purse money – will have a long-lasting effect.
Despite rainy weather that caused all but one of 12 scheduled turf races to be moved to the main surface over the two days, 93 horses competed, a testament to the spirit of cooperation among owners, trainers and jockeys toward the greater good of the sport.
Officially, Sunday’s eight-race card counted as the final day of the 92-day 2012-13 meet, while Monday marked the beginning of Tampa Bay Downs’ 88th season. It is tentatively scheduled to resume Dec. 4.
For more than 2,000 fans who attended the inaugural Summer Festival, the event was a reminder of how much fun live racing can be. And veteran horsemen such as trainer Monte R. Thomas of Ocala – who owns and operates Ups & Downs Farm with his wife, Catherine – is a fan at heart.
“I think for as much notice as everyone had, it certainly went off pretty well. There was a decent crowd both days and this is always a nice atmosphere to run in,” said Thomas, who saddled two winners and a runner-up from three starters Monday.
Thomas, who sent out 11 winners at Tampa Bay Downs last season from 60 starters, now leads the 2013-14 trainer standings after sending out 3-year-old filly Shezajezabell to win the seventh race under jockey Augusto A. Marin and sophomore filly Farah to win the eighth under Alex Gonzalez. Thomas said it was a no-brainer to ship horses in for the Summer Festival because of the future impact on purses.
“For the people who are planning to be here in the winter, this is a big deal,” Thomas said. “Anything we can do to get purses up, you have to do it. I’m glad (Tampa Bay Downs) is getting (control of) their signals, because everyone is going to get help.”
Marin, who rode four winners with two seconds over the two days, captured first place in the $5,000 Jockeys’ Challenge with 87 points to earn an additional $2,500 in bonus money. Monday, the 37-year-old Panamanian won the second race on 5-year-old gelding Laurens Jester for trainer Robert G. Smith and the seventh aboard the aforementioned Shezajezabell.
Marin’s two victories Sunday elevated him into a tie for ninth place in the final 2012-13 jockey standings with 36 victories. He sprang to local prominence April 3 at Tampa Bay Downs by riding three winners that paid $28.80, $45.60 and $41.20. After riding briefly at Presque Isle Downs and Colonial the past several weeks, he plans to begin anew at Suffolk in Massachusetts, where he won 23 races last year.
“(Agent) Michael Murray said he had some good business for me this weekend, and good horses always make it easy,” said Marin, who rode in Saudi Arabia in 2001. “I tried to make all the people I rode for here happy.”
Chris Landeros, a 24-year-old jockey who grew up in the shadow of Bay Meadows in California and already has 979 career victories, took second with 67 points to earn $1,500. Landeros won riding titles at Lone Star in Texas in 2009 and 2010 and rode two winners with four seconds during the Summer Festival.
“I really like it here,” Landeros said. “The surface is great, it’s a beautiful facility and it seems like the people love racing. The track drains water really well, and I was impressed by the way they maintain it. It’s sandy, and you have to bide your time and let the horses adapt to it themselves.”
Brian Halligan, a native of Dublin, Ireland, took third place with 45 points, one more than Raymond Torres. Halligan collected third-place money of $1,000. His victory in Monday’s fifth race on 3-year-old gelding Be Brief – a first-time starter owned and trained by Joseph Hennessy – decided the outcome.
Can’t wait until December, now? Join the club!