Dale Bennett didn’t race any horses today, but he managed to stay occupied after training hours.
With his training board on his lap and a new Tampa Bay Downs condition book in hand, Bennett mapped out plans for members of his 38-horse racing stable. Like his father Gerald Bennett, who has saddled more than 3,400 winners, Dale tries to eliminate uncertainty in a sport fraught with it.
I don’t run just to run. I want them to win and be competitive,” Dale said. “I’m pretty meticulous about picking my spots. It’s never been my style to over-race horses.”
Bennett’s measured approach is paying big dividends in his return to Tampa Bay Downs after a two-year absence. He is tied for second in the standings with 18 victories, leading to his selection as the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month.
Bennett’s strike rate of 23 percent (18-for-78) is third-best at the meeting among trainers with 40 or more starts. His 64-percent in-the-money rate trails only David Hinsley (71 percent) and Jamie Ness (66 percent).
Meanwhile, on today’s card, Gerald Bennett gave a leg up in the eighth race to 18-year-old apprentice jockey David T. Ortiz on Hebop, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Winning Stables, Inc., and Mike Anderson.
Both Oritz and Hebop had 13 previous starts – the difference being, Hebop had won once, Ortiz not. But when Ortiz urged Hebop up the rail late for a head victory from onrushing Run Jac Run, the youngster from Puerto Rico had his first victory.
Ortiz appeared to be unprepared for the initiation ceremony, in which he absorbed two buckets of ice water on his head, but tried his best to stay on an even keel.
“The plan was to be patient, save ground, make one move and finish strong,” Ortiz said through an interpreter, fellow jockey Willie Martinez. “I’m thankful to the trainer and owner for making me very happy with my first victory.”
Then, Ortiz broke into a grin. “I’m surprised I didn’t get it worse (in the initiation) because the ones I saw in Puerto Rico, it’s really a mess,” he said.
Back to Dale Bennett, who like countless Canadian youngsters, grew up passionate about hockey – so much, he briefly considered pursuing it as a career. “I traveled around with a Triple-A team, made a couple of trips to the states. I was pretty deep into it,” the former center recalled.
At the same time, Bennett was a right-hand man to his father on the family farm in Campbellville, Ontario. The elder Bennett was just starting to establish himself as a top-flight trainer, saddling 452 winners between 1986-88.
“I was raised on the farm, so while I was playing hockey I was still around the horses,” Dale said. “We had a swimming pool, treadmills, whirlpools – basically, it was a rehab farm, so I learned how to work with horses that were having problems and get them physically ready to go back to the track. Then one summer before I got out of high school, I started hot-walking horses for my dad and got hooked. After I graduated I went right to the track in New Orleans hot-walking and grooming horses.”
Dale credits his father, who was fourth in the track standings with 17 victories entering the week, for teaching him solid horsemanship skills – lessons that have made it possible for the son to saddle 535 winners since 1998 while scoring with more than 23 percent of his starters.
“He taught me to pay attention to every horse, do right by them and put them in the right races,” said Dale, who was seventh with 25 victories at Arlington in Illinois last year while winning at a 26-percent rate. “I don’t run just to run. I want them to win and be competitive.
“I think we’re right on point here, compared to what we expected,” he said. “The caliber of horses we brought here had a lot of conditions left, and we had some nice 3-year-olds that hadn’t run. So I could kind of see our stock fit the book as far as the races being offered, and everything has kind of fallen into place so far.”
Among the good horses the 41-year-old has campaigned locally are Savoy Stable’s 3-year-old colt Cool Cowboy, who won the Inaugural Stakes and finished second in the Pasco Stakes; 3-year-old gelding Stormy Pacific, a Savoy Stable charge who was second to Triple Crown nominee Giancarlo recently; and Vegso Racing Stable’s Mr Thunder Boy, another 3-year-old Bennett believes has a lot of potential.
Cool Cowboy has been working well since his runner-up Pasco effort, but Bennett is in no rush to return the six-furlong specialist to competition. “We don’t have anything specific we’re pointing him toward yet,” Bennett said. “I want to make sure we have a fresh 3-year-old for the summer. From his races at Arlington to the Pasco, it was a tough ride, and we wanted to freshen him because there are a lot of stakes for us up there” (in the Midwest).
Denise Bennett, Dale’s wife, is a former jockey. They have two daughters – Donna, 20, and Haleigh, 4. “When Haleigh came along, Denise became more of a ‘stay-at-home’ mom,” Dale said. “But she is still a major part of the operation running things behind the scenes with the billing, supplies and payroll, all those things. She is a big part of my success.”
Hearts Reaching Out dinner, auction tickets available. The 22nd annual Hearts Reaching Out golf tournament, dinner and auction to benefit the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division are scheduled Monday.
The four-person scramble golf tournament begins at 11 a.m. at Cheval Golf and Country Club in Lutz. The dinner is at 5:30 p.m. under the tent just north of the grandstand, followed by live and silent auctions of various sports and racing memorabilia, paintings, prints and a beach-resort vacation.
As an added bonus, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, best-known for training 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic champion and Horse of the Year Alysheba, will be the guest auctioneer.
Van Berg – the son of a Hall of Fame trainer, Marion Van Berg – will also be at the track Sunday on the first floor of the grandstand to sign copies of his book JACK, From Grit To Glory: A Lifetime of Mentoring, Dedication and Perseverance, written by Chris Kotulak.
The Hearts Reaching Out festivities begin with the annual scramble golf tournament at 11 a.m. at Cheval Golf and Country Club in Lutz. The cost for the tournament, dinner and auctions is $100, while the cost of the dinner and auctions only is $20. Tickets and details are available by calling Kathy at (813) 854-1313 or Sharyn at (813) 494-1870.
Odds and ends. Paul Reddam, the owner of 3-year-old Bond Holder, said the colt is being pointed toward the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 after suffering a slight injury flying from California to New Orleans that forced him to be scratched from last weekend’s Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
Plans called for Bond Holder to fly from Miami to California, but Bond Holder “was freaking out,” according to Reddam, when his plane landed in Miami. As a result, Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill have elected to keep him in Florida until the Tampa Bay Derby.
Reddam, O’Neill and Bond Holder’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, won the 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness with I’ll Have Another. Bond Holder won the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita as a 2-year-old.
Louisiana native Corey Lanerie, who is currently riding at Gulfstream Park, has been named the winner of the 2014 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. The award honors a jockey whose career and personal character earned esteem for both the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
The Woolf Award is voted on by jockeys. Lanerie defeated four other finalists, including Tampa Bay Downs jockey David Amiss; Dennis Carr; Aaron Gryder; and Scott Stevens.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. There is a Super High-5 carryover of $17,367.19. Tampa Bay Downs is 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.