With seven consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training titles under his belt, Jamie Ness has established a standard of excellence that is difficult to match.
But the 39-year-old South Dakota native is taking nothing for granted in his quest to match the late Don Rice’s record of eight Oldsmar training crowns when the 2013-14 Thoroughbred meeting resumes at the Oldsmar oval on Wednesday, Dec. 4. Post time for the first race is 12:25 p.m.
Fans attending the Dec. 4 program will receive a pass good for free grandstand admission for the remainder of December.
Ness is one of numerous familiar faces making up the trainers’ roster entering the track’s 88th season, which features an increase in purses and the track’s richest stakes schedule in history.
The lure of winter racing on Florida’s west coast has also attracted a deep jockey colony, led by a veteran contingent spearheaded by four-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion Ronnie Allen, Jr., Scott Spieth and Dean Butler. The jockey list also includes many up-and-coming riders on the verge of a breakout, like 2012-13 meeting runner-up Fernando De La Cruz and Angel Serpa.
The purses and the weather are major draws, but for the top names, it’s all about the chance to pit your horse against the other person’s horse and see how they stack up.
“It’s tough every year,” said Ness, who established the Tampa Bay Downs single-season record during the 2011-12 season by saddling 79 winners. “Trainers like Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell always do well here, and there are always some new shooters looking to knock you off when you’re on top. When I won the first time (the 2006-07 meeting), no one even knew who I was.”
Ness has become well-known to a majority of racing fans since, sending out a North American-high 395 winners in 2012 for his sole client, Midwest Thoroughbreds. Ness, who will train about 40 horses at Tampa Bay Downs while also competing at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale and Laurel Park in Maryland, has 1,999 career victories.
The list of returning conditioners includes Bennett, who tied Ness for the 2010-11 title with 61 victories, and O’Connell, who tied Ness for first the previous year by saddling 51 winners and won the crown outright in 1998-99 with 26 winners.
Rejoining Ness (46 victories during the 2012-13 meeting), O’Connell (32) and Bennett (31) on the Tampa Bay Downs backside are Bernell Rhone, who finished fifth last season with 23 victories; Jason DaCosta, who saddled 20 winners last season in his first year at the track; Dennis Ward; Greg Griffith; Joan Scott; and Tom Proctor.
Also back are a pair of trainers boasting recent Breeders’ Cup championships, William “Buff” Bradley and Ian Wilkes. Bradley trains Groupie Doll, the winner of back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint races, and Wilkes trained Fort Larned, who won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic and was fourth in the same race this year.
With a smaller contingent of horses, but no less potent, is Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, whose five Breeders’ Cup victories include three steeplechasers. Another trainer of multiple Breeders’ Cup winners returning to Tampa Bay Downs is former Sheppard assistant H. Graham Motion, best known as the trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
Among the new faces looking to contend is Dale Bennett (son of Gerald Bennett), who saddled 19 winners from only 78 starters three seasons ago. The younger Bennett was unable to compete here last season because of an Equine herpesvirus outbreak that forced Tampa Bay Downs management to deny entrance to all horses from Hawthorne in Illinois for the duration of the meet.
Hardly new to local racing fans, but a first-time Tampa Bay Downs conditioner, is Arnaud Delacour, who took over training duties from his wife Leigh Delacour to allow her to spend more time with their infant son.
Also certain to make an impact are first-year Tampa Bay Downs trainers Eion Harty and Dane Kobiskie. Harty won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Tempera and the 2009 Dubai World Cup with Well Armed. Kobiskie is a former jockey who saddled 105 winners in both 2011 and 2012.
Although 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs jockey champion Daniel Centeno has chosen to remain in the mid-Atlantic region for the foreseeable future, the competition for top rider will again be a meeting highlight. Joining those riders previously mentioned are Tampa Bay Downs newcomers Harry Vega, who has won more than 4,000 races in a 30-year career; Quincy Hamilton, whose father was a Quarter Horse rider; Antonio Gallardo, who won four consecutive stakes on a single card at Calder in August; and Gary Boulanger, who will move his tack from Woodbine in Toronto to Oldsmar after the holidays.
Several veterans who have competed in past seasons at Tampa Bay Downs seek triumphant returns, including Jose C. Ferrer and Luis A. Gonzalez.
Speaking for most who have chosen to call the Tampa Bay area home for the next 5-to-6 months, Ness sounds eager for the challenge that lies ahead. “We stay pretty consistent everywhere we run, but Tampa is a good, fun meet to be at,” he said. “This is home for me and this is where my career got kick-started. The climate is nice, and the main track is a good, kind surface for horses.
“If I win another title, that’s great. It means we’ve had a great meet,” Ness said. “But that is not a goal of mine. Every year, we try to run our horses in spots where they can be successful, and at the end of the season it usually turns out well.”
The 2013-14 meeting officially started July 1 – Day 2 of the Summer Festival of Racing – and trainer Monte Thomas and jockey Augusto Marin will enter Wednesday’s action atop their respective standings. Thomas saddled two winners here in July, and Marin booted home a pair of winners.
Following the Dec. 4 card, Tampa Bay Downs will conduct its annual Cotillion Festival Day Presented by Lambholm South on Saturday, Dec. 7, featuring an entire slate of 2-year-old races. Included are the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-old colts and geldings and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
Dec. 7 also features Breakfast at the Downs from 8-10 a.m. in the track’s Picnic Pavilion Area adjacent to the paddock. The cost is $6.95, which includes an all-you-can-eat Tampa Bay Downs-style breakfast, grandstand admission and Tampa Bay Downs program, plus a copy of “Betting Tampa Bay Downs 2013-2014: An Up-To-Date Guide For Bettors Handicapping The Oldsmar Oval,” by Peter Mallett.
Fans will have the opportunity to watch morning workouts from 8-10 a.m. and meet trainers and jockeys. Mallett will provide a handicapping seminar from 10-11 a.m. Tickets may be purchased at Customer Service or the track’s Switchboard Desk. For details, call (813) 855-4401.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.