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The weekend’s wintry blast is expected to be a distant memory by Wednesday’s 10-race card as Tampa Bay Downs embarks on the second half of its 2012-13 Thoroughbred season.
The leading jockey through 47 days of the scheduled 91-day meet is Angel Serpa, who continues to impress with his keen judge of pace, instinctive hands and finishing strength. With 49 victories from 202 mounts, the 25-year-old Serpa’s winning percentage (24.3) is far above all local jockeys with at least 75 mounts.
Serpa also leads the colony in purses won, more than $735,000, thanks in part to his three stakes victories. He won the Dec. 29 Minaret Stakes on Appealing Stella; the Jan. 5 Turf Dash on Great Attack; and the Jan. 26 Lightning City on the turf on Smartys Emperoress.
In his bid to win his first title, Serpa will not have an easy time of it, at least not if Daniel Centeno has a say. The 41-year-old Centeno won four consecutive crowns from 2006-10, and might have won a fifth had he not suffered a dislocated pelvis and separated shoulder in a 2011 spill. Centeno is second with 46 victories after winning three races Sunday, including two on the turf.
Fernando De La Cruz has vaulted to the fringe of contention with a serious hot streak that saw him win nine races over the past four days. De La Cruz – whose wife Rosa gave birth to the couple’s second child, a daughter, less than two weeks ago – has won 14 races since the blessed event to move into third place with 36 victories.
Rounding out the top 10 in wins through Sunday are four-time track champion Ronnie Allen, Jr., 30; Scott Spieth, 24; Danny Coa, 18; Dean Butler, 17; and Jose Espinoza, Jose Angel Garcia and Ademar Santos, 16 each.
The revelation in the jockeys room has been journeyman Jose Espinoza, a beneath-the-radar rider on the prestigious New York circuit the past 14 years. Espinoza has 16 victories from 41 starters (39.1) percent, including victories in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Falling Sky and the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on Swift Warrior, both for trainer John Terranova II. Espinoza rode two winners Sunday.
In the trainer standings, it is customary to find Jamie Ness on top; the 38-year-old Heron, S.D. native has won the past six Tampa Bay Downs titles (tying with Kathleen O’Connell in the 2009-10 season and Gerald Bennett two years ago).
Ness has not been as dominant as last season, but then again, his 2011-12 performance of 79 victories from 168 runners was virtually unprecedented in modern annals. This season, Ness is 29-for-82, leading Jorge Navarro (19-for-50) by a comfortable margin.
Jane Cibelli and O’Connell are tied for third with 16 victories. Cibelli has won two stakes, taking the Opening Day Inaugural Stakes with then-2-year-old Purple Egg and the Minaret Stakes with Appealing Stella.
Rounding out the top-10 trainers list are Gerald Bennett, 14 victories; Jason DaCosta, 13; Chad Stewart, 13; Leigh Delacour, 12; Dennis Ward, 11; and Antonio Sano, 11.
Ness also leads in purse earnings with $305,051, about $60,000 ahead of Terranova, whose graded-stakes victories account for $210,000 of his total winnings.
Ness trains exclusively for Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the stable name of Chicago-area residents Richard and Karen Papiese. Midwest finished second in the 2012 Eclipse Award balloting for Outstanding Owner to Sheikh Mohammed after sending out a North American-record 542 winners. While it is doubtful any outfit will again reach such heights, Midwest (with an identical record to that of Ness) is a safe bet to capture another Tampa Bay Downs owners title.
Second with nine victories is Ridenjac Racing, followed by Jacks or Better Farm, Inc., 8; Jason DaCosta, 6; World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., 6; Robert Gerczak, 5; Sargas Management LLC, 5; Blue Top Holdings Stable, 5; Bruno Schickedanz, 5; and a number of stables with four victories.
DaCosta owns and saddled two of Sunday’s winners.
Boulanger returns to action. Gary Boulanger resumed his long-interrupted jockey career Sunday, and although he was an also-ran on 3-year-old filly Spring a Latch – which he also trains – he opened the possibility of riding again soon, either one of his own horses or another trainer’s stock.
Boulanger, who has more than 3,100 career victories, had not competed in a race since suffering serious injuries in a 2005 stakes race at Gulfstream.
“What’s next? The trainer fires the jock, right away,” Boulanger joked on his way back to the room after the race. “I knew I was in trouble going into the first turn (from the No. 8 post in the 1-mile turf race). I tried to tuck her in, and a couple of guys were trying to get out and get position.”
Boulanger moved Spring a Latch to the lead on the backstretch, but her early exertions tired her and she faded to ninth in the 10-horse field. The race, the ninth on the card, was run as the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week and won by the H. Graham Motion-trained Le Fascinator, ridden by Daniel Centeno.
Boulanger would be forced to relinquish his training license if he decides to ride for other trainers, but sounded as if he may be leaning in that direction if he can find enough business.
“It was a great feeling, just to be out there again,” said Boulanger, who rode his first winner in 1987 in an Arabian-bred race at Tampa Bay Downs. “It’s a learning process, for this filly and especially for me. I just wish I had more horse today. I’m not planning to go full-fledged (riding) until the right offer comes along.”
Stakes get higher. The stakes program at Tampa Bay Downs will continue to pick up momentum over the next three weeks, with the $75,000 Super Stakes at seven furlongs for 4-year-olds and upward Saturday; the $60,000 Challenger Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth for 4-year-olds and upward March 2; and Festival Day 33, the March 9 card featuring the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, 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.
The Super Stakes on Saturday drew 22 nominations, headed by defending champion Action Andy, the popular 6-year-old gelding owned by Robert Gerczak and trained by reigning Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month Carlos Garcia. Action Andy has won three of his last four starts, including his second consecutive Pelican Stakes victory here on Dec. 8 in stakes-record time of 1:09.14 for six furlongs.
Other prominent Super Stakes nominees include Grade III winners Easter Gift, a 4-year-old colt, and Winslow Homer, a 6-year-old horse, both from the barn of Chad Brown; the Todd Pletcher-trained 4-year-old Hierro, another Grade III winner; multiple graded-stakes placed 4-year-old Scatman, trained by William Mott; and 2011 Super Stakes winner Capt. Candyman Can, a 7-year-old gelding trained by Ian Wilkes.
Also, Good Lord, trainer Forrest Kaelin’s 6-year-old winner of four stakes at four different tracks in 2012; and improving 4-year-old gelding Angelofdistinction, winner here of the 2011 Inaugural Stakes, and trained by Jorge Navarro.
The Challenger closed with 25 nominations, including 2012 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective. Owned by John C. Oxley and trained by Mark Casse, Prospective has earned more than $700,000 while winning seven of 14 starts. After taking the Pasco and the Tampa Bay Derby last winter, Prospective added scores in the Victoria Park Stakes at Woodbine; the Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown; and the Delta Mile Stakes at Delta Downs.
Last year’s Challenger winner, Fort Larned – owned by Janis Whitham, trained by Ian Wilkes and ridden in the Challenger by Ronnie Allen, Jr. – used the race as a springboard to his eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic victory and a third-place finish in Eclipse Award Horse of the Year balloting.
It’s unknown if this year’s Challenger field will contain another Fort Larned, but it is worth noting Wilkes has nominated two runners, both 4-year-olds owned by Lothenbach Stables, Inc.: the Bluegrass Cat gelding Nicklaus Way, a winner of his last three starts, and the Discreet Cat colt Meowser, who has two lifetime victories.
Other outstanding Challenger nominees include H. Graham Motion’s 4-year-old colt Went the Day Well, a Grade III winner who was fourth in last year’s Kentucky Derby; the David Fawkes-trained 6-year-old gelding Cash Rules, who won the Grade III Spend a Buck Handicap at Calder last fall; Grade I-placed 6-year-old Citrus Kid, from the barn of red-hot John Terranova II; and Todd Pletcher’s 5-year-old San Pablo, a winner of nine of 16 starts, including a Grade III stakes, and more than $500,000.
Also, Hurricane Ike, a Michael Stidham-trained 6-year-old whose mark includes multiple stakes victories and close to $600,000 in lifetime earnings; Alma d’Oro, a 7-year-old career earner of almost $500,000 trained by Pletcher; and the aforementioned Chad Brown pair of Easter Gift and Winslow Homer.
Nominations for the Tampa Bay Derby, the Hillsborough Stakes and the Suncoast close at midnight Saturday.
Hearts Reaching Out. The Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division’s “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament and Charity Auction and Dinner will be held Monday, March 4. The RTCA provides spiritual, emotional, physical, social and educational services to the workers at the racetrack.
The tournament will be a four-person scramble at Countryside Country Club in Clearwater beginning with an 11 a.m. shotgun start. The top three teams will receive prizes. The dinner is at 5:30 p.m. under the tent in the Tampa Bay Downs Picnic Area, followed by the auction and an awards banquet at 7 p.m.
Cost is $100 for golf, dinner and auction, $20 for dinner and auction. Tickets are available at the Chaplain’s Office. For details or to reserve a spot, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 298-1576.
Items to be auctioned include racing and sports memorabilia, signed items, photographs and paintings.
Proceeds benefit the RTCA, a certified 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. The RTCA, Tampa Bay Downs Division also receives financial support from Tampa Bay Downs, the Horsemen’s Benevolence and Protective Association and individual donors. Information is available at the web site www.rtcatbd.org

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