OLDSMAR, FL. – If you remember the Heinz ketchup commercial from the 1970s with Carly Simon singing “Anticipation” (we didn’t have squeeze bottles yet!), you can appreciate what area Thoroughbred racing fans have endured since summer.
The wait officially ends Saturday, Dec. 1 when Tampa Bay Downs launches its 87th season with Lambholm South Cotillion Festival Day, with a full card of 2-year-old races celebrating the track’s heritage of developing future equine stars.
Opening Day’s festivities begin at 8 a.m. in the Picnic Pavilion Area with the always-popular Breakfast Buffet, which is $6.95 and includes free grandstand admission, a racing program and a chance to watch horses work out and meet trainers and jockeys (tickets must be purchased beforehand in the track’s General Office).
The Dec. 1 card is highlighted by a pair of $75,000, six-furlong stakes for 2-year-olds: the 28th running of the Inaugural Stakes for colts and geldings and the 34th edition of the Sandpiper Stakes for fillies.
Following a successful 2011-12 season and the success of several of its graduates and horsemen in the recent Breeders’ Cup, Tampa Bay Downs is riding a wave of momentum that has trainers, jockeys and fans in a “can’t-wait” mood for Opening Day’s 12:35 p.m. first-race post time.
“We’re thrilled to start a new season and confident our racing product will continue to attract nationwide attention and gain new fans for our sport,” said track Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube.
“By starting with a card devoted to 2-year-olds – many bred in Florida – we are able to showcase the state’s robust breeding industry and build excitement for our 3-year-old program, which is the centerpiece of our meeting every year,” Berube said.
The Inaugural has drawn 24 dominations, headed by Grade III and multiple-stakes winner Brave Dave from the barn of trainer Edward Plesa, Jr.; trainer Wesley Ward’s Grade II-placed Handsome Jack; and stakes-winner Tate’s Landing, trained by Michael Pino.
For the Sandpiper, 21 fillies have been nominated, including Grade III-placed Touch Magic from the barn of Antonio Sano and stakes-winner Crumb, a south Florida-based runner trained by Larry Bates.
Tampa Bay Downs remains at the forefront of technological innovation in racing entering the upcoming season with the introduction of MyTampaBay, a mobile wagering platform which will allow patrons to bet on that day’s races using mobile devices.
Bettors can simply open a “Day Account” with a teller and wager from their smartphones by enabling GPS on their device anywhere at Tampa Bay Downs. Tellers can provide a full list of instructions for opening and maintaining their accounts for that day’s racing.
Perennial leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness returns to the track on Florida’s west coast, seeking an unprecedented seventh consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title (he tied with Kathleen O’Connell for the 2009-10 crown and again with Gerald Bennett two years ago). Ness saddled a track-record 79 winners last season.
With 362 winners in 2012 through Tuesday, Nov. 20, Ness is close to nailing down his first national wins title. But his presence hasn’t scared off the likes of established conditioners such as Bennett, O’Connell, Jorge Navarro, Jane Cibelli, Leigh Delacour, Bernell Rhone, Thomas Proctor and Joan Scott from mounting their own assaults on the top spot.
Most of the top jockeys from the 2011-12 season also are returning, including runner-up Ronnie Allen, Jr., who has won four Tampa Bay Downs riding titles; Daniel Centeno, who won four consecutive track titles from 2006-10; rising star Angel Serpa, third last season with 72 victories; and veteran Scott Spieth, who claimed career victory No. 4,000 here last season.
Throw in such established journeymen as Willie Martinez, who won the recent Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Trinniberg, plus Dean Butler, Daniel Coa and Ricardo Feliciano, and it seems certain the jockeys race will again go down to the final weeks of the meeting.
The 91-day meeting, which runs through May 5, is highlighted by the track’s annual Festival Day on March 9. That lucrative card features the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, which has been a stepping stone to Kentucky Derby glory two of the past six years, along with the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf for fillies and mares and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
Breakfast Buffet attendees are encouraged to remain for a 10 a.m. handicapping seminar featuring Peter Mallett, author of the annual “Betting Tampa Bay Downs” guides and co-author of Crushing the Cup, a yearly handicapping guide to the Breeders’ Cup.
In addition to the established lunch and dining areas throughout the facility, Tampa Bay Downs is adding a barbecue-style food truck from Di Legge’s Old City Grill at the north end of the grandstand.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas and Easter for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.