With the 11th annual Florida Cup in seven days and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands a mere five weeks away, the 87th season at Tampa Bay Downs has officially hit the homestretch.
The majority of horsemen are making arrangements to ship their horses to other tracks, while remaining hopeful of picking up a few more checks to help pay for the journey. But when it comes to the coveted jockey and trainer titles, nothing has been decided.
Through Saturday’s card, a pair of familiar faces lead the chase, both seeking to write track history. Jockey Daniel Centeno, with 69 victories from 331 mounts, is bidding to become the first jockey to win five Tampa Bay Downs riding titles, while trainer Jamie Ness, with 39 winners from 113 starters, is seeking a seventh consecutive title (the late Don Rice won eight non-consecutive titles between the 1994-95 and 2004-05 seasons).
Centeno had planned to ride two horses at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, including an assignment on Guam Typhoon in the $75,000 Sir Shackleton Stakes. But when both horses were scratched, Centeno hustled back to Tampa Bay Downs to pick up three mounts, finishing second in the ninth race on Poetic Kid.
Centeno won four consecutive Oldsmar crowns beginning with the 2006-07 meet. During that span, he won an astounding 540 races, including a record 144 in 2007-08. The only other jockeys to win four championships here are Ronnie Allen, Jr. (1984-85; 1986-87; 1987-88; and 2010-11) and William Henry (1992-93; 1993-94; 1994-95; and 1996-97).
With 19 performances remaining this season, Fernando De La Cruz, with 63 victories after two on Saturday, appears to have the best chance to pass Centeno. De La Cruz, who won the 2012 Hoosier Park title, has 41 victories over the past 34 racing days – a span that coincides with the Feb. 4 birth of his daughter Norma.
On the fringe of contention are Angel Serpa, with 56 victories, and the eternally youthful Allen, with 53 after a two-victory performance Saturday. Rounding out the top 10 are Scott Spieth, 36; Dean Butler, 30; Danny Coa, 30; Huber Villa-Gomez, 28, with two Saturday; Antonio Gallardo, 27; and Ademar Santos, 26.
Among the track’s conditioners, Ness owns a more comfortable 10-victory margin from runner-up Jorge Navarro, who has saddled 29 winners from 77 starters (a meet-best 38 percent among trainers with 20 or more starts).
Ness, who led all North American trainers in 2012 with 395 victories, has sent out 1,860 winners since beginning his training career in 1999. This year, he is second to Steve Asmussen (94-71) in victories.
Ness set a Tampa Bay Downs record last season by winning 79 races. He tied for the top spot in 2010-11 with Gerald Bennett and the previous year with Kathleen O’Connell.
Following Ness and Navarro in the standings are Gerald Bennett, 25 winners; Kathleen O’Connell, 23; Jane Cibelli, 19; Bernell Rhone, 18; Dennis Ward, 16; Leigh Delacour, 15; Jason DaCosta, 15; and Chad Stewart, 14.
Ness trains exclusively for the Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., operation of Rich and Karen Papiese, who lead the track owner standings with 39 victories, 28 more than runner-up Ridenjac Racing.
De La Cruz was victorious in the fifth race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf claiming event, on 8-year-old mare Who Is Lady, owned by George Ruggeri and trained by William Downing. The Peruvian rider’s second victory also came on the turf in the ninth race, a 1-mile allowance/$32,000 optional claiming contest, aboard 4-year-old filly Slander for owner Jack Matia and trainer Forrest Kaelin.
The ninth was the Lambholm South Race of the Week.
Allen won two for the second day in a row. He was on 6-year-old mare Pretty Gal Too in the first race, a six-furlong claiming event, for owner-trainer Pretty Gal Too. He also won the eighth, a seven-furlong claiming race, on 3-year-old gelding Tazer for owners Victor Scodius and John Fitzpatrick and trainer Robert Jeffries.
Villa-Gomez won the sixth race, a seven-furlong maiden claiming race, on 4-year-old colt Win the Future for breeder-owner Barry Ostrager and trainer Lynne Scace. Win the Future paid $55. In the 10th, a seven-furlong claiming event, Villa-Gomez rallied 6-year-old gelding Ritmo Criollo from off the pace for owner Fabio Arias and trainer Nestor Cascallares.
Trainer William Downing saddled two winners on the card. In addition to Who Is Lady, Downing won the seventh race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf allowance, with Terry E. Davie’s 5-year-old gelding Will Run for Beer, who won by a nose from Tigerdude under jockey David Amiss.
Will Run for Beer has won three races at the current meet, first at the $8,000 non-winners of two claiming level, then for $16,000 non-winners of three, before Saturday’s gutsy triumph.
Tampa Bay Downs is closed Sunday for the Easter holiday. Thoroughbred racing resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. Next Saturday’s Florida Cup Day card includes six $75,000 stakes for registered Florida-breds.
Beginning on Monday, Tampa Bay Downs will be open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.