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Tampa Bay Downs wrapped up its 86th Thoroughbred racing season the weekend of May 5-6 with a memorable two-day celebration.
A festive crowd of 9,028, the second-largest of the meet, watched and wagered on 12 live races and the simulcast of the Kentucky Derby on the final Saturday of the 2011-12 campaign. The following day, the 92-day meeting drew to a close as the track recognized loyal patrons with the annual Fan Appreciation Day activities.
The Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. operation of Richard and Karen Papiese, which recorded a third consecutive title as leading owner, marked the conclusion of the season with generous donations of $10,000 to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and $5,000 to both Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc. (TROT) and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division.
A season marked by outstanding on-track accomplishments – including eight track records, the second-fastest Tampa Bay Derby in history and the emergence of popular star sprint filly It’s Me Mom – has already whetted appetites for Tampa Bay Downs’ 2012-13 Thoroughbred meeting to begin.
On the financial front, track management, staff and horsemen hurdled some obstacles, enabling Tampa Bay Downs to post on-track attendance and handle figures in line with the previous year.
Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube said a confluence of factors slowed the track’s growth, leading to a decrease in average field size – from 9.11 to 8.54 runners a race – and a decline in all-sources handle.
 “I am optimistic every season, but we knew 2011-12 would present several new challenges,” Berube continued.
For starters, Gulfstream Park moved its opening day ahead to coincide with the Dec. 3 kickoff of live racing at Tampa Bay Downs. Competition for horses from Gulfstream and other tracks – several offering purses enhanced by casino revenues – and the steady decrease in recent years in the annual U.S. Thoroughbred foal crop made it harder to fill races.
Wagering handle dropped as a result. “Not only were we impacted by Gulfstream opening earlier and the decline in field size,” Berube said, “because of the mild winter, there were almost no cancellations at other tracks, increasing our competition for simulcast wagering on a daily basis.”
While average daily all-sources handle on the live product dropped 10.91 percent this season – from $4,760,450 during the 2010-11 meeting to $4,149,073 – about half of that decline was due to the lower average field size.
“Lacking the same revenue streams as many tracks – such as slot machines and other forms of casino gambling – presents additional challenges ,” Berube said. “Also, not having a deal with TVG may have been a factor in our final numbers.
“But with all of that, we still averaged about $4.15 million a day, which again made us the fourth most popular winter signal in the country and placed us more than $1 million ahead of the fifth and sixth-place tracks,” Berube said.
Berube was able to point to several bright spots, including negligible drop-offs in average attendance (from 3,195 to 3,148) and live on-track handle (from $226,855 to $219,842).
For the season, 289,609 patrons passed through the turnstiles, wagering an average of $127.56 per person on live racing and simulcasts. That figure represented a slight increase from the previous year. Total on-track handle for the season (including simulcast wagering) actually increased by almost 3 percent, from $39,143,522 to $40,245,422.
There was good news for horsemen, too, despite the handle decline on the live signal. Average daily purses paid increased from $160,944 to $162,320, mostly thanks to a minimal decline in overall pari-mutuel revenue.
Looking ahead, Berube plans to address those areas he can control while facing the evolving pari-mutuel industry head-on. “We look forward to weighing our options, tweaking a few things and beginning preparations for a strong 2012-13 season,” he said.
Thanks to the mild winter and lack of rain, the demand from horsemen and the efforts of track superintendent Tom McLaughlin and his staff in maintaining the turf course, Tampa Bay Downs carded a record 262 turf races this season.
Business was also healthy on the backside. In addition to the increase in purses, 279 horses were claimed, a 20-percent increase from 2010-11.
As always, on-track activity provided scores of rich memories to last Tampa Bay Downs fans until a new season arrives. Attached are some of those highlights.
      Jamie Ness shatters trainer record, wins sixth consecutive title; Midwest makes it 3 in a row
Trainer Jamie Ness attracted long-overdue acclaim throughout his record-shattering 2011-12 meeting. After tying Gerald Bennett for the title last season and matching Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10, Ness earned his sixth consecutive crown with 79 victories, 11 more than his former track record set four years earlier.
Ness trains exclusively for Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., which won its third consecutive Tampa Bay Downs owners’ title. The mega-stable is owned by Richard and Karen Papiese.
Oddly, the only dent in the Ness armor was his inability to win a stakes race. His 47-percent win rate and 77-percent in-the-money mark stamped his horses as the ones to beat almost every time. On Jan. 19, he saddled four winners, tying the track record for a single card he already shared with O’Connell.
Ness-trained horses earned $875,384 this season. In the victory column, Bennett was second with 32 trips to the winner’s circle, followed by Jorge Navarro, 30; Jane Cibelli, 27; and Bernell Rhone, 25.
Likewise, Midwest had no rivals in the owners’ competition. The Blue Top Holdings Stable of Juan Matos and Dennis Ward tied for second place with 13 victories, and Reid Nagle’s Big Lick Farm and Lloyd Lockhart tied for fourth with 10 each.
Leandro Goncalves holds on for first title against Allen, Serpa
Despite leaving in early April for Keeneland and Indiana Downs, jockey Leandro Goncalves had built enough of a cushion to earn his first Tampa Bay Downs riding title with 88 victories. He also led the local colony with a 23-percent win rate.
Goncalves finished eight victories ahead of Allen, who closed the season with a flourish by riding three winners each of the last three days. Angel Serpa was third with 72 victories (including the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf on Roman Tiger) and Pablo Morales and Rosemary Homeister, Jr. tied for fourth with 52 victories.
Erik Barbaran was the leading apprentice jockey with 27 victories, tied for 11th overall. He also rode the longest-priced winner of the meeting: Sunday Cruisin,’ who paid $177.60 to win on May 5.
Barbaran, a 20-year-old native of Lima, Peru, lost his apprentice allowance three days after the meeting. He plans to compete at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts this summer.
The Brazilian-born Goncalves earned career victory No. 1,000 on Dec. 28 aboard 6-year-old gelding Rich Hero for Ness and Midwest Thoroughbreds. Goncalves was at his best April 7 on Florida Cup Day, winning the $75,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore Stakes on Tarpy’s Goal and the $75,000 Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies’ Stakes on Xunlei.
Tampa Bay Derby offers highest purse in the nation
It’s no misprint: On March 10, the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds offered the largest purse of any race in the nation. More than Gulfstream. Larger than Santa Anita. Higher than Aqueduct or Fair Grounds.
The 32nd edition of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, held on Festival Day, March 10, attracted a season-high crowd of 9,247. Total wagering for the afternoon was also a 2011-12 best of $9,183,788, of which $759,682 was bet on-track. The Festival Day card included the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes and the $100,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes.
The quality of competition proved equal to the buildup. Prospective, a 3-year-old owned by John C. Oxley and trained by Mark Casse, surged in deep stretch to post a ¾-length victory from Golden Ticket in 1:43.35, the second-fastest time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth in Tampa Bay Derby history.
In the Hillsborough, top jockey Javier Castellano piloted 5-year-old French-bred mare Zagora to a record-setting victory, affirming her status as one of the top turf mares in the country. Castellano also won the Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes aboard the 3-year-old filly Wait Til Dawn for owner Michael Tabor and trainer Todd Pletcher.
It’s Me Mom’s Florida Cup Day victory against males highlights her banner season
If fans could have voted for a ‘Horse of the Meet,’ it’s likely the 4-year-old filly It’s Me Mom would have won in a landslide.
The homebred daughter of Put It Back-She Too, by Stormy Atlantic, was sensational Dec. 7 winning the Minaret Prep against older horses by eight-and-a-quarter lengths in 1:10 flat for six furlongs.
In her final start as a 3-year-old on New Year’s Eve, the $50,000 Minaret Stakes, It’s Me Mom again showed her heels to the field, winning by the same margin in stakes-record time of 1:09.68 under jockey Willie Martinez.
Four weeks later, trainer Lynne Scace sent It’s Me Mom to Gulfstream Park for the $150,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint. The field included Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and Eclipse champion Musical Romance, but the outcome was the same: a nearly-seven-length victory in 1:08.85.
It’s Me Mom’s only loss of the Tampa Bay Downs meeting came Feb. 25, and it took a track record to top her. White Merlot caught her in the final strides, winning the six-and-a-half furlong event in 1:16.04.
But It’s Me Mom renewed her backers’ faith April 7 on Florida Cup Day in the $75,000 Hilton Garden Inn Sprint against males. With Jorge Vargas aboard (Martinez was at Aqueduct to ride Trinniberg in the Grade III Bay Shore), It’s Me Mom led from start to finish, setting a six-furlong track record of 1:08.67.
Adding to It’s Me Mom’s popularity was the presence of her breeders and owners, Jean and Thomas Bosch of Holiday, Fla. The couple has been married 60 years, and 87-year-old Thomas Bosch is a former jockey and trainer. “We’ve had a lot of winners, but none like her,” said Jean Bosch. Few people have.
It’s Me Mom is entered in Friday’s $100,000, six-furlong Skipat Stakes at Pimlico. Martinez will ride.
Attendance and handle for Kentucky Derby Day and Festival Preview Day
The 138th running of the Kentucky Derby drew a colorful crowd of 9,028 – second-highest of the season – to watch 12 live races and the Run for the Roses. Total wagering for the afternoon was $6,578,876.
The second-best afternoon of wagering action during the meeting occurred on Festival Preview Day, Feb. 4, on a card that featured the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes; the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes; and the $150,000 Florida Oaks.
 A crowd of 5,344 contributed to total wagering on the afternoon of $8,180,578 on the live Tampa Bay Downs card. The day’s highlights included jockey Julien Leparoux winning the Sam F. Davis on maiden 3-year-old Battle Hardened; 5-year-old mare Zagora dominating her competition in the Endeavour; and Dixie Strike winning the Florida Oaks on the turf for owner John C. Oxley and trainer Mark Casse.
Festival Preview Day also featured an appearance at the track by Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, still the most recent Triple Crown-winning rider on Affirmed in 1978.
Florida Cup Day, April 7, featured six $75,000 stakes for registered state-breds and drew 6,108 fans.
Track records abound
Numerous track records were established during the 2011-12 meeting, with a final tally of four new standards on the dirt (including It’s Me Mom’s six-furlong mark) and four on the turf.
Less than two weeks after White Merlot’s record-setting performance against It’s Me Mom, on March 10, the six-and-a-half furlong mark was again lowered to 1:15.47 by Robert Gerczak’s 5-year-old gelding, Action Andy, trained by Carlos Garcia.
On March 14, Lady of Greatness – a 6-year-old mare owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and trained by Jamie Ness – set a Tampa Bay Downs main track record for five-and-a-half furlongs of 1:02.79. That bettered the two-week old mark of 1:03.45 set by G. Ray Trisler’s 4-year-old gelding, Only Win.
Bear Always, a 6-year-old gelding owned by the Blue Top Holdings Stable of Juan Matos and trained by Jorge Navarro, set a main track mark of 1:39.07 for a mile-and-40-yard distance on April 20. The previous standard of 1:39.36 was set by the filly Vaulcluse in the 2008 Suncoast Stakes.
On the turf, one record was set for a precise distance and three at ‘about’ distances. On Jan. 26, Jr’s Exchange, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Patrick J. Scanlon and trained by Gerald Bennett, broke a six-year-old turf record for five furlongs by winning an allowance optional claiming race in 54.92 seconds.
Lentenor, a then-4-year-old whose previous claim to fame was as a full brother to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, established a record for the ‘about’ a mile-and-a-sixteenth on turf on Dec. 23, winning an allowance optional claiming race in 1:40.95 for owner Lael Stables and trainer Leigh Delacour.
On Feb. 24, Elaine Vinson’s 5-year-old gelding Wait’n On Sumthin set a turf mark of 1:34.38 for ‘about’ a mile in a three-horse photo finish with Crimson Knight and Charging Home. Wait’n On Sumthin was trained by Garner Vinson.
The other turf track mark for an ‘about’ distance was set by Zagora in her Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes victory on March 10. The Martin Schwartz-owned and Chad Brown-trained mare completed the approximate mile-and-an-eighth grass test in 1:46.97.
Scott Spieth wins 4,000th race
Veteran jockey Scott Spieth, riding at Tampa Bay Downs on a season-long basis for the first time, achieved a career milestone April 6 when he rode his 4,000th winner on the 4-year-old filly Ula for Big Lick Farm and trainer Reid Nagle in a five-furlong maiden special weight.
Spieth, who rode his first sanctioned Thoroughbred race in 1986, reached the milestone with a flourish, riding three winners on back-to-back cards. He followed up his victory aboard Ula one race later by winning a maiden special weight on 5-year-old Photo Session for Lori Smock.
Perhaps the best part of No. 4,000 for Spieth was the reaction from his fellow jockeys, who crowded the winner’s circle after the race to congratulate him and join the commemorative photograph. Spieth finished the meeting in eighth place with 38 victories.
The green initiative
Before the meeting, Tampa Bay Downs underwent a $1.5-million capital improvements project designed to keep the track at the forefront of the racing and sports entertainment industries.
The most noticeable upgrade was the introduction of Trakus, the electronic tracking system which displays the position and location of each horse on television monitors throughout a race.
The technology gives handicappers an added edge in evaluating a horse’s running style. Within minutes of the finish of a race, Trakus is able to display the order of finish, beaten margins and how much additional or lesser ground the also-rans traveled in comparison to the winner.
On a structural front, Tampa Bay Downs began an ongoing ‘green initiative’ that ultimately could result in the facility having a ‘net-zero’ environmental impact. The enhancements included the installation of a CREE LED lighting system throughout the clubhouse and grandstand and a Gaco Sil S-20 ‘Cool Roof’ coating system, providing a weather-tight seal to prevent degradation caused by ultraviolet light, water and weather hazards.
Blog gives Web site visitors an insider’s look at the goings-on of the racetrack
Visitors to the track’s Web site at www.tampabaydowns.com were treated to a series of weekly blogs from track officials, jockeys, trainers and employees that were both entertaining and informative. Titled ‘Racing In The Sunshine,’ the blogs were designed to give fans a look behind the scenes during a typical day at the track.
Subjects included popular jockeys Willie Martinez and Rosemary Homeister, Jr.; top trainers Leigh Delacour, Jorge Navarro and Kathleen O’Connell; steward Charlie Miranda, the Tampa City Councilman; Director of Racing and Racing Secretary Allison De Luca; Director of Food Services Dick Toda; and Association Veterinarian Dr. Kristen Pastir.

Along with the Web site’s wealth of race-day information, replays and a full listing of events and services, the blogs served to enhance the enjoyment and understanding of both long-time fans and newcomers to Tampa Bay Downs and Thoroughbred racing.

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