OLDSMAR, FL. – Although Sunday’s 11-race Fan Appreciation Day card had a feeling of finality, the 2012-13 meet will officially end with an eight-race Thoroughbred program on Sunday, June 30. The following day, July 1, will kick off the 2013-14 meet with eight races, although next season’s meet will then not resume until late fall, tentatively the first week of December.
Under current state legislation which decrees the fiscal year to end on June 30, the additional two days will classify Tampa Bay Downs as a year-round live Thoroughbred racing facility, enabling the track to retain all simulcasting revenue.
The end result will be increased purses for Tampa Bay Downs horsemen during upcoming meets and a pleasant, two-day summertime return of Thoroughbred racing to the Tampa Bay area.
Since the wins leaders in the major categories were more than eight victories ahead of their nearest pursuers at the conclusion of Sunday’s card, Tampa Bay Downs presented handsome equine statues to each of the winners after the sixth race. Three are familiar faces, while the fourth made a strong impression in his introduction to local bettors.
LEADING TRAINER: JAMIE NESS
Firmly established at several racetracks along the East Coast, Ness has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success locally. With 46 victories through Sunday, the 38-year-old native of South Dakota has sewn up a record seventh consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title (Ness was tied for the top spot in 2009-10 by Kathleen O’Connell and again the following season by Gerald Bennett).
The next target in Ness’ sights is the Tampa Bay Downs record of eight overall training titles set by the late Don Rice, who won four in a row from 1999-2000 through 2002-03.
Ness, who trains exclusively for Rich and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., powerhouse, led all trainers in North America in 2012 with 395 victories. He is currently third in 2013 in North America with 90 winners.
Earlier this year, Ness finished ninth at Aqueduct with 14 victories and seventh at Laurel with 10. He also saddled 11 winners at Gulfstream.
Last season, Ness set a Tampa Bay Downs record by sending out 79 winners from 168 starters. Since taking out his trainer’s license in 1999, Ness has 1,879 victories.
LEADING JOCKEY: DANIEL CENTENO
The 41-year-old Centeno, who was born in Caracas, Venzuela, freely admits he was not ready to compete on a regular basis when he first came to the United States in 1996 to ride at Calder. He spoke virtually no English, and he returned home after only a few months to resume his career at La Rinconada.
Since his return to the United States in 2003, it has been impossible to question Centeno’s commitment and day-to-day preparation. With 90 victories through Sunday, he has wrapped up his fifth Tampa Bay Downs jockey title, breaking a record he shared with Ronnie Allen, Jr., and William Henry.
Centeno capped his season with a hat-trick flourish, winning the fifth, sixth and seventh races Sunday.
Centeno won four consecutive titles at Tampa Bay Downs from 2006-07 through 2009-10, averaging an incredible 1.48 winners per performance. He set a track record during the 2007-08 season with 144 victories.
Thus far in 2013, Centeno has ridden 71 winners, which ranks among the top 20 in North America. He rode three stakes winners at the current meet, tied for the most of any rider, and his two Florida Cup victories gave him a record seven in the state-bred showcase.
LEADING OWNER: MIDWEST THOROUGBREDS, INC.
Back-to-back runner-up finishes in Eclipse Award balloting for the title of Outstanding Owner in North America only begin to speak of the domination of Dyer, Ind., residents Rich and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds juggernaut, which has clinched its fourth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs owners crown with 46 victories.
Midwest, which teams with Ness at Tampa Bay Downs, won 79 races here last season to set a track record. But their success extends far and wide. The outfit set a North American record in 2012 with 542 victories and led all owners in purse earnings with $10,145,328. Last year marked the third consecutive wins title and second money title in a row for Midwest, which again leads North America in wins with 132.
Rich Papiese – the founder of Midwest Store Fixtures, a leader in the design, manufacturing and implementation of retail merchandising displays, fixtures and environments – joined forces with Ness in 2008. The following year, Papiese purchased Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla., a 137-acre facility where Midwest keeps yearlings, layups, horses recovering from minor ailments and a handful of retirees.
All it may take for Midwest to capture the elusive Eclipse Award is to campaign a few graded stakes winners and further enhance its day-to-day excellence at a wide spectrum of racetracks.
LEADING APPRENTICE JOCKEY: RICARDO MEJIAS
It did not take the 20-year-old Mejias long to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. Despite leaving Tampa Bay Downs a few weeks ago to honor commitments at ThistleDown in Ohio, Mejias remains in the top 15 of the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 20 victories.
No less an authority than trainer Gerald Bennett, who has saddled more than 3,300 winners, expressed admiration for the skills of Mejias. “He doesn’t make too many mistakes,” Bennett said earlier in the meet.“He’s young, aggressive and he wants to win races.”
Two years ago, Mejias didn’t even know if he’d be riding, let alone winning races. After attending jockey school in Puerto Rico for a year, he was forced to put his dreams on hold to undergo surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor in his jaw.
In December of 2010, doctors went in beneath Mejias’ ear to remove the tumor, leaving a 4-inch scar on his neck. Unable to ride afterward, he worked at Camarero as a jockeys’-room valet, riding the mechanical Equicizer between duties.
Another operation followed in May of 2011 in which bone was grafted from his hip to replace part of his jaw, forcing Mejias to do little except watch races and think about riding. Judging from his results at Tampa Bay Downs, Mejias put his brain power to good use.
Augusto Marin rode two winners Sunday. He was on 5-year-old mare Throttle Up in the fourth race for owners John E. Brown, Timothy Hartle and Winning Stables, Inc., and trainer Gerald Bennett. Marin won the ninth on 5-year-old horse Gibson County Line for owners Drake Smith and Rick George and trainer Robert G. Smith.
The success of a Thoroughbred meet depends as much on its lesser lights as its champions. And although 36-year-old Czech Republic native Lucie Herkova has struggled the past few seasons to make headway against one of the nation’s deepest winter-spring jockey colonies, her determined approach and positive outlook have won her scores of admirers on the backside, in the jockeys’ room and among fans and bettors.
Herkova, who earned her first victory of the meet Saturday in the fourth race on 11-1 shot Jim N John, actually had a feeling it might be her day when she fell from a horse she was working for trainer Gerald Bennett in the morning. “Usually when my day starts bad like that, it ends very well, so I thought something good would happen,” Herkova said.
When she got back to the jockeys’ room after her victory, Herkova was doused by ice water from Linda Scocca, the track’s Silks Person, who had shouted herself hoarse rooting for Herkova to prevail. “I really appreciated it, because I was hot after the race,” Herkova said, laughing.
She was gratified by the response from other jockeys who recognize her perseverance. To make ends meet this season, Herkova often worked several days a week painting houses and doing home improvement work on dark days or when she wasn’t named on a horse. “I galloped horses every day until 9:30 a.m., changed clothes and worked until 5 or 6 p.m.,” she said.
“I would be exhausted, but he needed help, I made some extra money and I learned something new.
“Nothing falls in my lap. I don’t have a barn behind me and I’m my own agent,” said Herkova, who is credited with 50 victories in North America since starting her career in 2008.“Finally luck came my way, but I believe if you’re prepared, your chance will come.”
Herkova was originally named on only two horses Saturday, but picked up three additional horses when Davis Amiss took off his mounts after incurring a hand injury during morning training. One was Jim N John, a 5-year-old gelding bred and owned by Linda Rosenblatt and trained by Ronald Gaffney. Jim N John was 0-for-7 entering the maiden claiming event, his best finish a fourth on March 2.
“Linda told me in the paddock ‘Just try,’ and I said ‘You bet I will.’ He was a lazy horse, very big, and I had to ride him every step of the way. Believe me, I was getting tired, but at the 3/8-mile pole the others were getting tired and I started going past them. I was so happy because I didn’t want to leave here with zero wins.
“It all happened so fast, the feeling is something you really cannot describe,” said Herkova. “I was happy, the people were happy and the crowd was happy, and it was a monkey off my back.”
Herkova is headed to Colonial in Virginia this summer and plans to return to Oldsmar next fall. “I like it here, and I don’t want to quit just because it’s hard to win races,”she said. “Sometimes it is hard for me to wake up and be optimistic, but I can’t imagine not trying. If I was just sitting on a bench doing nothing, I would hate myself.
“You know what I say –what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That is the beauty of racing; you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. That’s the beauty of life.”
New Port Richey resident Jack Balahtsis won The Silks Poker Room drawing Sunday for the Toyota 4Runner presented by Wesley Chapel Toyota. On hand for the presentation of the keys to Balahtsis were dealership owner David Williams, community relations representative Eric Johnson and Patrick Murphy, the Director of The Silks Poker Room.
Balahtsis, 75, also won an earlier drawing Sunday for a $599 cash prize. He plays at The Silks Poker Room seven days a week. He is the Chairman and CEO of Jacks, Inc., an Ohio-based company that manufactures and supplies thousands of different pieces of horse equipment to outlets in 78 countries. One of his best customers is A.A.A. Feed & Tack on the backside of Tampa Bay Downs.