The sight of a pair of adult sandhill cranes with two adorable chicks making their way across the main track two hours before post time at Tampa Bay Downs on Sunday served as a fitting metaphor for the final day of the 2011-12 Thoroughbred meeting.
For horsemen, jockeys and Tampa Bay Downs officials, Sunday was a time to reflect on the achievements of the past five months – including a highly successful Kentucky Derby Day party that attracted more than 9,000 fans – while looking forward to the promise of a bright future.
Tampa Bay Downs also conducted an 11-race card to conclude its 86th season while honoring its loyal patrons and newcomers to the sport with the annual Fan Appreciation Day, featuring free admission and discount prices for hot dogs, sodas and draft beer, as well as gift shop merchandise.
The track presented trophies in the form of handsome equine statues to the meeting’s top trainer, jockey, owner and apprentice jockey. Although there has been virtually no suspense about the recipients for several weeks, honoring the season’s best is always a much-anticipated highlight on the final day of racing.
LEADING TRAINER: JAMIE NESS
In the competition for top trainer, Jamie Ness established his dominance early and never looked back en route to claiming his record sixth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title (he tied for first last season with Gerald Bennett and two seasons ago with Kathleen O’Connell).
Ness, who trains exclusively for Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., sent out 79 winners from 168 starters, an almost-unheard of 47 percent win rate. He topped his previous track record of 68 wins, which he set during the 2007-08 meeting, on April 1.
Ness trains two of the three leading winners at the meeting in the 9-year-old gelding Stumbling Block and the 7-year-old mare Kitty City, who was 5-for-5 at Tampa Bay Downs this season. Stumbling Block was deprived of his sixth victory by a scant nose in a starter allowance on April 21 by Gold Brew, the other five-race winner this season out of the barn of trainer Bernell Rhone.
Entering Sunday’s action, Ness led the nation in 2012 with 148 victories, 25 more than Steven Asmussen. Even more impressive for a trainer who deals mostly with claiming and allowance horses, Ness is ninth in earnings with more than $2.3 million. He earned $875,384 this season at Tampa Bay Downs, more than twice the total earned by runner-up Gerald Bennett.
Ness credits his wife and assistant, Mandy, and exercise rider Trisha Walter for much of his stable’s success, along with the roughly 20 other employees who help with his operation.
On Jan. 19, Ness sent out four winners, tying the track record set by Kathleen O’Connell in 2003 and equaled by Ness three seasons ago. That gave him 24 winners from 51 starters, and amazingly he never fell off that pace the remainder of the season.
Mandy Ness and Walter accepted the trophy from Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube for Ness, who sent out four horses Sunday at Pimlico in Baltimore.
LEADING JOCKEY: LEANDRO GONCALVES
The leading jockey at Tampa Bay Downs this season, Leandro Goncalves, was the go-to rider for the Ness stable for much of the season. Make no mistake, though: The 30-year-old Goncalves won the title on his own merits, displaying a work ethic and professionalism worthy of the top spot.
Goncalves rode 88 winners from 384 starters to finish eight victories ahead of 2010-11 track champion Ronnie Allen, Jr. (who rode nine winners over the final three days). The Brazilian-born Goncalves posted mount earnings of $1,299,954, almost $200,000 more than runner-up Angel Serpa.
Goncalves achieved a major career milestone Dec. 28 by riding his 1,000th career winner aboard the then-6-year-old gelding Rich Hero for Ness and Midwest in a starter allowance. He finished 2011 with 298 victories, third-best in the nation.
He was at his best on Florida Cup Day on April 7, when he won the $75,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore Stakes on Tarpy’s Goal and the $75,000 Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Stakes on Xunlei. Both winners were trained by Dale Romans.
Goncalves also enjoyed a streak of 18 consecutive racing days at Tampa Bay Downs with at least one winner. He is competing at Indiana Downs currently and his trophy was accepted by 16-year-old Jessy Smith, who is the daughter of Mandy Ness (and Jamie’s stepdaughter) and one of Goncalves’ biggest supporters. Peter Berube made the presentation.
LEADING OWNER: MIDWEST THOROUGHBREDS, INC.
Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the mega-stable owned by Richard and Karen Papiese of University Park, Ill., was the runner-up for an Eclipse Award last year in the Outstanding Owner category. It didn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to see the outfit finish atop the Tampa Bay Downs owner race for the third consecutive season with a record-shattering 79 victories.
The Papieses own a 137-acre farm in Anthony, Fla., where they keep lay-ups and horses in training. Their ‘blue-collar’ stable relies on their proficiency is claiming the right horses and entering them in the right spots and keeping their legions of runners fresh.
Clearly, Midwest’s success extends beyond Tampa Bay Downs. Through Saturday’s action, Midwest had won 206 races in 2012, 124 more than runner-up owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays.
Mandy Ness, accompanied by Trisha Walter and Jessy Smith, accepted the owner trophy on behalf of Midwest and the Papieses from Peter Berube.
The Papieses – who own and run Midwest Store Fixtures, a family business that outfits display cases, kiosks and other custom products for retail establishments – are also benefactors of the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
On Saturday, it was announced Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., has made generous donations to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc. (TROT) and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division.
Midwest donated $10,000 to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and $5,000 apiece to TROT and to the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division.
LEADING APPRENTICE JOCKEY: ERIK BARBARAN
Before Erik Barbaran’s arrival at Tampa Bay Downs this season, the apprentice jockey had won 32 races in his lifetime – 16 at Hipodromo de Monterrico in his hometown of Lima, Peru and 16 last season at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts.
Early in the Tampa Bay Downs meeting, after winning a turf race, Barbaran was tossed from his mount upon returning to the main surface en route to the winner’s circle. He was unshaken, but worried his mount might be disqualified for the mishap (it wasn’t).
It happens to the best of them; in fact, it happened to probable Hall of Fame rider Corey Nakatani after a winning ride Saturday at Churchill Downs. However, when it happened to Barbaran, some observers had questions about the new kid trying to break in against the deepest jockey colony at Tampa Bay Downs in memory.
Man, did he show them.
With his 27th victory at the meeting Sunday, the 20-year-old moved into a tie with Dean Butler for 11th place in the final standings. Fittingly, Barbaran loses his apprentice allowance Wednesday (two years from his fifth career victory, in Peru) and will begin competing as a journeyman at Suffolk.
“There are many good jockeys here, and I got a lot of experience,” Barbaran said through a translator, Mariluz Espada. “I learn something every time I go to a different track. I’m really happy about how I did here and being leading apprentice.
“I just plan to start all over again when I lose my ‘bug’ (allowance) and keep going.”
Barbaran is the son of trainer Horacio Barbaran, who was an accomplished jockey in Peru. The elder Barbaran, who now owns HB Farm in Ocala, won numerous stakes in his homeland and rode briefly from 1996-99 in south Florida. Not coincidentally, Erik’s grandfather Horacio also was a jockey.
After early training from his father, Erik attended the prestigious Jorge Bernardini Yori Jockey School in Peru for two years before heading to the racetrack.
Although he opened eyes throughout the meeting, Barbaran had most observers bug-eyed Saturday when he piloted 87-1 shot Sunday Cruisin’ to her maiden-breaking victory in the fourth race for owner Wendy L. Brown and trainer Luis Dominguez.
Sunday Cruisin,’ a 5-year-old mare who had not finished in the money in 13 previous starts, paid $177.60 to win, $77.80 to place and $25.80 to show, the highest across-the-board mutuels of the meeting. It was Barbaran’s first time riding Sunday Cruisin,’ although he had galloped her in the mornings.
Barbaran, with several family members including his father joining the ceremony, accepted the leading apprentice jockey trophy from Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube.
The 2011-12 meeting witnessed eight track records, four on the main dirt surface and four on the turf. On the dirt, 4-year-old filly It’s Me Mom set a six-furlong record of 1:08.67 in the $75,000 Florida Cup Hilton Garden Inn Sprint on April 7, bettering Sneaking Uponyou’s mark of 1:08.69. It’s Me Mom, who was ridden by Jorge Vargas, is owned by Jean and Thomas Bosch and trained by Lynne Scace.
Other dirt track marks were set by 5-year-old gelding Action Andy, 1:15.47 for six-and-a-half furlongs on March 10; 6-year-old mare Lady of Greatness, 1:02.79 for five-and-a-half furlongs on March 14; and 6-year-old gelding Bear Always, 1:39.07 for a mile-and-40-yards on April 20.
On turf, Jr’s Exchange, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Patrick Scanlon and trained by Gerald Bennett, set a five-furlong mark of 54.92 seconds on Jan. 26 under jockey Angel Serpa.
The other new marks were set at ‘about’ turf distances. Lentenor, a then-4-year-old horse, raced about a mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:40.95 on Dec. 23; Wait’n On Sumthin, a 5-year-old gelding, raced about one mile in 1:34.38 on Feb. 24; and 5-year-old French-bred mare Zagora won the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes at about a mile-and-an-eighth in 1:46.97 on March 10.
On Sunday’s card, 3-year-old filly Prickly Pear won The John Shoemaker Purse, an allowance optional claiming race honoring the long-time trainer who died in 2003 at 90. Officially, he trained from 1976-97, compiling 140 career victories.
It was the turf debut for Prickly Pear, who is trained by Jane Cibelli and was ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr. She paid $8 to win. Her time for the mile was 1:35.14. She defeated Cee’s My Lady by three-and-a-half lengths.
Veteran jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. concluded the meeting with his third consecutive three-victory performance, giving him 80 victories for the meeting and the runner-up spot behind Goncalves.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day throughout the year for simulcast wagering on Thoroughbreds, greyhounds and jai alai, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.