OLDSMAR, FL. – You don’t have to scan the jockey and trainer standings too deeply to discover numerous fresh faces near the top through the first quarter of Tampa Bay Downs’ 2012-13 season.
And given the depth of riding talent and abundance of skilled conditioners on the grounds, Thoroughbred fans can expect such delightful unpredictability to continue through the foreseeable future.
Veteran track observers aren’t surprised to see Daniel Centeno and Angel Serpa running 1-2 among jockeys with 26 and 22 victories, respectively. After all, Centeno won four consecutive titles here from 2006-10, and the 25-year-old Serpa finished third last season despite departing a week early.
But it’s probably surprising to all but a few to find Fernando De La Cruz in third place with 18 victories. Making the youthful Peruvian jockey’s start doubly impressive is his 20-percent win strike, behind only Centeno, Serpa and Dean Butler among riders with 50 or more mounts.
De La Cruz finished a respectable 13th in last season’s standings, but won on only 10 percent of his rides. But winning breeds confidence, and he entered the current Tampa Bay Downs campaign fresh off a meet title at Hoosier Park in Indiana, where he dethroned 2011 champion Leandro Goncalves.
Earlier in 2012, De La Cruz won a pair of $200,000 stakes on the same day at Indiana Downs.
A familiar face to anyone who has frequented Tampa Bay Downs the past three decades, Ronnie Allen, Jr., is in fourth place with 13 victories, including eight in the last five racing days. Butler is tied for fifth with 11 victories with Scott Spieth, after Spieth rode three winners Sunday.
Luis Garcia, Danny Coa and Ademar Santos are next, with nine apiece; followed by Jose Angel Garcia with eight; and five jockeys with seven: Willie Martinez, Huber Villa-Gomez, Carol Cedeno, Antonio Gallardo and promising apprentice Ricardo Mejias.
In the trainers’ competition, it will be an upset of major proportions if anyone but Jamie Ness finishes on top. The 38-year-old South Dakota native has won six consecutive Tampa Bay Downs titles (tying for the top spot with Gerald Bennett in 2010-11 and Kathleen O’Connell three years ago), and with the support of owner Rich Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. operation, Ness will be tough to topple.
Bennett, who has 11 victories, might have the firepower to challenge Ness over the course of the season. But the current third-place trainer, with 10 victories, is an eye-opener: Chad Stewart, who tied for 12th last season with 14 victories but has won with 32 percent of his starters this season.
What makes Stewart’s success more notable is that he ships his runners in from his Grace Full Oaks Farm in Ocala the day of their races. The Nebraska native saddled 3-year-old colt Mr. Watanabe Too for his second victory in as many tries Sunday.
Another relatively new face near the top belongs to Antonio Sano, who won six races from only 41 starters here last year but is fourth this season with nine victories.
Sano, who is also stabled at Gulfstream, has won at a steady clip in south Florida the past three years, and came to prominence at Tampa Bay Downs two years ago with Sandpiper and Gasparilla Stakes winner Devilish Lady, who later became a Grade III winner.
Track newcomer Jason DaCosta has also made a strong initial impression, with eight victories and four seconds from only 18 starters. Jorge Navarro also has eight wins, followed by Jane Cibelli, Leigh Delacour and Bernell Rhone with seven apiece; and H. Graham Motion, Dennis Ward and Kathleen O’Connell (who won twice Sunday), with six each.
Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. leads the owners standings with 17 victories, followed by Ridenjac Racing (Jeanne Shand) with six and World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc. (Gene Phelps) with five.
Luis Garcia was unseated from his mount in the first race and sat out his second-race assignment, but returned to ride the remainder of the card, finishing third on Flowing Mane in the fourth race and second on Porcupine in the eighth.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:38 p.m. There will be a High-Five carryover of 11,578. The track 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. Saturday is Cap Giveaway Day, with free caps with the track insignia to each paid patron while supplies last.