With two victories Sunday raising its total to 19 through the first 22 days of the 2011-12 Thoroughbred meeting, Midwest Thoroughbreds is well on its way to a third consecutive title as leading owner at Tampa Bay Downs.
But the outfit spearheaded by Midwest Store Fixtures founder Richard Papiese and trainer Jamie Ness is in search of much greater recognition at Monday night’s 41st annual Eclipse Awards dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Midwest Thoroughbreds is one of three finalists for the award as Leading Owner for 2011, along with Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and Team Valor. Results of the voting will be announced during the ceremony, at which Havre de Grace is expected to be named Horse of the Year.
Meanwhile, current leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Leandro Goncalves – who piloted both of the Midwest-Ness winners Sunday – rode four winners on the card, giving him 27 for the meeting and an eight-victory margin over current runner-up Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Goncalves won the second race, a 5 ½-furlong starter allowance, for Midwest and Ness aboard 7-year-old gelding Rich Hero, who won for the third time at the meeting. Next for Goncalves was the third race and a triumph aboard Midwest’s 9-year-old gelding Stumbling Block in a mile-and-40-yards claiming race.
Goncalves captured the eighth race, a 5-furlong maiden special weight, with 3-year-old Tell All You Know for trainer Chad Stewart. He won the ninth on the H. Graham Motion-trained Lucky Strikes Gold in a one-mile turf allowance/optional claimer.
Back to Midwest, a true blue-collar operation that started with a handful of horses in 2001 and took off in 2009 with the hiring of Ness, a South Dakota native who has won or shared five consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training titles.
After leading the nation with 310 victories in 2010 – and claiming its first Tampa Bay Downs title during the 2009-10 meeting, with 43 triumphs – Midwest turned on the jets last year. The outfit won 418 races, 144 more than the runner-up group of Billy, Donna and Justin Hays, while winning with 29 percent of its entrants.
Midwest won the owners’ title during the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Downs meeting with 59 victories from 163 starters, a staggering 36-percent win rate. Midwest and Ness won the 2011 Pelican Stakes with See I A. Midwest’s Oldsmar success fueled a year in which the outfit, despite campaigning mostly claiming horses, accumulated $6,307,278 in earnings, more than $1.4 million ahead of the Ramseys’ runner-up total.
The Ramseys enjoyed much of their success in 2011 with homebreds by their stallion Kitten’s Joy, who won a 2004 Eclipse as champion turf male. Foremost was Stephanie’s Kitten, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
Team Valor, headed by Barry Irwin, won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom and the Grade I Del Mar Oaks with Summer Soiree and concluded the year with more than $3.2 million in earnings.
Three years ago, Papiese purchased a 137-acre farm in Anthony, Fla., where he keeps layups and horses in training. Midwest’s far-flung operation employs other trainers, but Ness – who trains exclusively for Midwest – currently handles about 40 horses at Tampa Bay Downs, 30 at Laurel, 12 at Penn National and six at Oaklawn.
Ness employs his wife Mandy as his assistant at Tampa Bay Downs and his cousin, Cory Jensen, as a top assistant.
“I really enjoy the relationship with Midwest, and hopefully it will continue for many years,” Ness said. “Our niche in the business is claiming horses and occasionally turning them into stakes winners. We race blue-collar, middle-of-the-road horses because that’s how we believe we can turn a profit and keep our business going.”
Live racing resumes at Tampa Bay Downs on Wednesday as the track embarks on its regular Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule. Tampa Bay Downs is open each day for simulcast wagering, along with no-limits poker in the Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.