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After torrential rains Saturday that caused the fourth race to be delayed by a half-hour, wiped out weekend turf racing and created temporary flooding in areas, Mother Nature took mercy Sunday on equine and human athletes, horsemen, fans and the intrepid track photographer, John Duca.
Bright sunshine, nearly cloudless skies, temperatures in the low 70s and benevolent breezes heralded the return of spring to Tampa Bay Downs, giving Thoroughbreds and their riders nearly perfect conditions on a track upgraded from “good” to fast after the first race.
Fernando De La Cruz, currently fourth in the jockey standings with 50 victories despite missing more than a month with a broken bone near his wrist, rode back-to-back winners in the sixth and seventh races, while Luis Garcia also booted home two winners.
In the sixth race, De La Cruz rallied the aptly-named 4-year-old Massachusetts-bred gelding Im Kwik to a three-and-a-quarter length victory going six-and-a-half furlongs for owner Kwik Six Racing and trainer William Sienkewicz.
De La Cruz added the seventh race on 3-year-old filly Archer Queen, who rolled to a six-and-three-quarter length victory for owner Arindel Farm and trainer Jamie Ness.
A further indication things had returned to normal came in the eighth race, when Ness again sent out the winner, 5-year-old gelding Motor City, who rallied late up the rail to edge Rico Suave by a nose under Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Antonio Gallardo. Motor City is owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.
With 43 victories, Ness is closing in on an incredible eighth consecutive track training title.
Garcia’s victories came in the fifth race on 5-year-old gelding Rhythm of the Moon for owners Stella F. Thayer and Little Everglades Ranch and trainer Arnaud Delacour, and in the ninth on 5-year-old gelding Bellachino for owners Mary Lackey and Donna Freadreacea and trainer Dale Bennett.
That triumph in the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week was also the second on the card for Bennett, who saddled 4-year-old gelding Nearly Irish to win the fourth race under Pablo Morales for owners Kathleen McIsaac and Dana Pink.
With five weeks of racing left in the 2013-14 meeting – plus the June 30 card that heralds Tampa Bay Downs’ annual, two-day Summer Festival of Racing – today’s second race offered a fascinating glimpse into the transitional nature of the sport.
Three of the seven runners were claimed for $8,000 and another was claimed for $7,000 as horsemen look to strengthen their stables for the upcoming switch to a new venue.
A look ahead. Racing resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card featuring the fourth and final legs of the Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series, with both races being contested at a mile-and-three-eighths. Both races offer $32,000 in purse money and are carded for older horses that have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less in 2013-14.
Anyone attending Wednesday’s card will receive a pass for free grandstand admission every day through May 4.
The fillies and mares division is slated as the fourth race, with a field of 10 scheduled to compete. The morning-line favorite at 5-2 is the 5-year-old mare Slander, owned and trained by M. Anthony Ferraro. He claimed the Pennsylvania-bred for $20,000 from her previous start, a victory in a mile-and-40-yard race that was taken off the turf.
Pedro A. Rodriguez has been named to ride Slander.
The male division of the Tampa Turf Test attracted an overflow field of 14, with 10 eligible to start. Houngun – a 7-year-old gelding owned and trained by Dennis Manning – wears the favorite’s wreath at 7-2. 
Gallardo will ride Houngun, who is 4-for-33 lifetime but won an earlier leg of the Tampa Turf Test at a mile-and-an-eighth on Feb. 15.
Post time for the first race Wednesday is 12:25 p.m.
Lucrative Florida Cup Day is Saturday. The third-richest program of the 2013-14 meeting takes place Saturday with the 12th edition of Florida Cup Day, featuring six races worth $75,000 apiece for registered Florida-breds. The event celebrates the Sunshine State’s excellence in breeding and raising Thoroughbreds capable of competing at the top level of racing nationally.
Three of the races are scheduled on the main dirt track and three on the turf. The dirt events include the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going six furlongs; the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs; and the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies at seven furlongs.
The Florida Cup races on the grass are the Tampa Turf Classic for 4-year-olds-and-upward at a mile-and-an-eighth; the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf for fillies and mares 3-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth; and the Skinny’s Place of Anna Maria Island Sophomore Turf for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth.
Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing four days a week – Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – through May 4, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 20, when the track is closed. The track is open every day year-round except Easter and Christmas for simulcasting, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.

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