While the inhabitants of the press box tend to become sentimental as the conclusion of a racing meet approaches, trainers and jockeys can’t lose focus on their next opportunity for a big payday.
As Kentucky Derby weekend and Fan Appreciation Day on May 5 at Tampa Bay Downs draw near, several riders and stables have already relocated, while other horsemen have shipped some of their horses to begin preparations for the spring and summer.
Jamie Ness, who has all but sewn up his seventh consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title, has already moved about two-thirds of his 90-horse stable up north. Ness – who trains exclusively for the Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., operation of Rich and Karen Papiese – will keep the majority of his horses at Delaware Park during the summer, about 25 at Aqueduct in New York and a small string at Colonial in Virginia.
“This time of year is always pretty busy,” Ness said from Delaware, where he watched his 3-year-old filly Cherylwithans win the fourth race at Aqueduct. “We have our own vans, so all our shipping is done in-house. We still have 30 horses left at Tampa, and another 20 will leave next week.”
With 44 victories, Ness has a seemingly safe 11-win margin from current runner-up Jorge Navarro. Last season, Ness ran away with the crown by saddling a track-record 79 winners, 47 more than Gerald Bennett.
“I learned really early that getting on top is hard, but staying there is much harder,” said Ness, who is second in North America this year with 81 victories after leading the win standings last year with 395. He tied for the Tampa Bay Downs title with Gerald Bennett in 2010-11 and Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10.
Navarro is planning to transfer his operation to Monmouth Park, where he hopes to challenge Jane Cibelli, who has won the past two full-season training crowns at the New Jersey oval. Cibelli is fifth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 21 victories.
Bennett, currently third locally with 27 victories, has already begun shipping horses to ThistleDown in Cleveland, Ohio, which opened Friday. Most of his stable will eventually be based at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., which opens its 2013 season May 12.
Among the other leading Tampa Bay Downs trainers, Kathleen O’Connell – who recently passed the 1,500-victory mark for her career – will compete at Monmouth and Presque Isle while keeping a string in Miami. Bernell Rhone will transfer his operation to Canterbury Park; the Shakopee, Minn., track starts its 2013 season May 17.
Dennis Ward will be moving his horses to south Florida, where he will race at Calder in Miami and Gulfstream in Hallandale. Jason DaCosta, who has opened eyes locally by sending out 17 winners from 51 starters, will be stabled at Calder and compete at both tracks. Greg Griffith, the current Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month, will stable his runners at Gulfstream and compete primarily in south Florida.
Leigh Delacour has already moved back to her Fair Hill, Md., training base, but that didn’t stop her from winning the seventh race Friday on the turf with Stella F. Thayer and Robert Blanchard’s improving 4-year-old filly Tippie Tap. Tom Proctor has horses at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and Santa Anita, and will be represented by Examen in Saturday’s Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
A few of Tampa Bay Downs’ leading jockeys have already departed, including Angel Serpa, who finished his stay here with 56 victories, including three stakes scores. The 25-year-old rider moved recently to Pimlico and has mounts there Saturday in both the Stormy Blues Stakes and the Henry S. Clark Stakes.
Veteran Scott Spieth, who claimed career victory No. 4,000 last season at Tampa Bay Downs, is riding a full slate at ThistleDown. Jose Espinoza only spent part of the season here, but victories in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Falling Sky and the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf on Swift Warrior helped him amass $495,427 in mount earnings, seventh-best at the meet. Espinoza is back at Aqueduct, his home base.
Delaware Park begins its 81-day meet May 18, and current Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno will move his tack to the Wilmington oval at the end of this meet. With 81 victories – 11 more than runner-up Fernando De La Cruz – Centeno has all but locked up a track-record fifth riding title.
Also planning to head to Delaware is veteran Danny Coa, who has been on a recent tear that has elevated him to fifth in the standings with 40 victories. De La Cruz is headed to Indiana Downs, which begins its news season Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the date of veteran rider Ronnie Allen, Jr.'s return is uncertain. Allen suffered fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a lacerated liver in a spill last week. Doctors originally forecast he would be out 4-to-6 weeks; he was released from St. Joseph's Hospital earlier this week but is still experiencing pain, according to his agent, Paula Bacon. Allen, who is third in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 57 victories, will resume riding at Presque Isle Downs. He is 40 victories shy of 3,000 for his career.
Among the other top local riders, Dean Butler will be returning to Canterbury in Minnesota; Huber Villa-Gomez plans to return to Presque Isle; and Antonio Gallardo will ride in south Florida. Ademar Santos is moving to ThistleDown. Ryan Curatolo will be heading to Monmouth.
Ricardo Mejias – the leading apprentice jockey at Tampa Bay Downs this season, with 20 victories – is already riding at ThistleDown.
Wherever they wind up after Tampa Bay Downs wraps up its 87th season, those trainers and jockeys mentioned and the others who have competed here throughout the season hope to create a new bundle of sentimental memories.
Ryan Curatolo rode two winners Friday. In addition to the above-mentioned Tippie Tap, he urged 5-year-old gelding Left Foot Slewie to a come-from-behind victory on the turf in the 10th race, a 1-mile claiming contest, for owner Big Shot Stable and trainer Margaret McVey.
Saturday’s 10-race card begins at 12:35 p.m. There are five turf races slated. The co-features are the seventh race, a $21,200, 1-mile turf event for 3-year-old claiming fillies, and the ninth, a $20,200, 1-mile turf allowance for horses 4-and-upward. The wide-open ninth is headed by 3-1 morning-line favorite El Uno.
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.
From now through May 4, players in The Silks Poker Room have the opportunity to qualify for a drawing to win a Toyota 4Runner from Wesley Chapel Toyota Honda. In any of the cash games, a hand of aces-full or better with one card earns one drawing ticket; four-of-a-kind or better with both cards earns two tickets; a straight flush earns three tickets; and a royal flush earns five tickets.
Sundays and Thursdays are double-ticket days. The drawing for the 4Runner will be held May 5; the winner must be present to attend. In addition, nine tickets will be drawn that day for $599 cash prizes. The Silks Poker Room is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m.