OLDSMAR, FL. – Saturday’s Skyway Festival Day card kicks off the 3-year-old stakes program at Tampa Bay Downs, with a pair of $100,000 stakes races featuring horses with the potential to move on to graded company.
The 14th running of the $100,000 Pasco Stakes, which will be the 10th race on an 11-race card, has attracted a field of 10 horses, including two supplementary nominations.
In the 29th renewal of the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes – the eighth race on the card – 11 3-year-old fillies will face the starter. Both the Pasco and the Gasparilla will be contested at a distance of seven furlongs.
Post time for Saturday’s first race is 12:25 p.m.
“I’m very happy with both fields,” said Tampa Bay Downs stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawzyk. “I think both races will be very competitive, and it promises to be a great card altogether with a lot of big fields.”
Likely favorites in the Pasco include John C. Oxley’s Grade I-placed stakes winner Dynamic Sky, who competed in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in November, and Goodwood Racing II’s Purple Egg, a supplementary entry whose 3-for-3 record includes a victory in the Dec. 1 Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in stakes-record time of 1:09.93 for six furlongs.
Top candidates for Gasparilla glory include multiple-stakes winner Martha’s Moon, owned by Fox Hill Farms, Inc., and Vitameta, an Arindel Farm-owned sophomore who was second by a half-length in the Sandpiper Stakes on Dec. 1 at Tampa Bay Downs.
Skyway Festival Day, while highly significant in its own right, is a prelude to two of the biggest days on the national 3-year-old Thoroughbred stakes calendar.
Festival Preview Day on Feb. 2 at Tampa Bay Downs includes the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks on the turf, both for 3-year-olds. The Feb. 2 card will also include the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf, marking it as the first time in track history three graded stakes will be run the same day.
Festival Day, March 9, includes the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for sophomore fillies. Also on tap March 9 is the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older distaffers on the turf.
Jamie Ness, who leads the 2012-13 meet standings with 14 victories from 38 starters, has been named Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month. Ness, whose horses have posted 27 in-the-money finishes, is also off to an excellent start at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, with five victories and nine in-the-money efforts from 14 starts.
North America’s leading trainer in 2012, with 396 victories, Ness has a soft spot in his heart for the veteran campaigners in his stable – horses such as 10-year-old gelding Stumbling Block and 8-year-old gelding Dazzlin Dr Cologne, both of whom won their first starts this season after extended layoffs.
Seeking his seventh consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title, Ness knows that with proper care and handling, he can expect such runners to perform honestly every time out.
“I’m kind of partial to those older horses that have back class and have been around the block,” said Ness, who trains exclusively for Chicago-area businessman Rich Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. “They’re war horses that give you everything they’ve got. We’ve had Stumbling Block six years, and the only thing he wants is to be a racehorse.”
Stumbling Block has won 21 of 76 career starts, with 13 seconds, 11 thirds and earnings of $382,654. So enamored was the Midwest team with the Illinois-bred that after he was claimed for $16,000 at Oaklawn Park two years ago, Midwest claimed him back for $5,000 at Hawthorne in October of 2011.
Stumbling Block has since won six of 13 starts, including a four-race winning streak during the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Downs meet.
Stumbling Block was off six months before winning here Dec. 28, and Dazzlin Dr Cologne’s Dec. 26 victory was preceded by a layoff of more than eight months. Both horses were turned out at Papiese’s Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla., a 137-acre facility devoted to the care and rejuvenation of the outfit’s horses.
“Being able to stop on our horses and send them to the farm for freshening is one of the advantages I have,” said Ness.
“A lot of older horses are good for so many starts a year, then they start tailing off. That’s when it’s time for a break. In that regard, they’re like professional football or basketball players – those guys couldn’t play year-round and expect to stay at the same level. As they get older, they need down time, and we’re able to incorporate that in our program.”
Ness continues to show his acumen in the claiming end of the sport. On Dec. 7, he claimed then-5-year-old gelding Backwater Blues from an allowance/optional claiming, six-furlong race for $16,000.
The lightly-raced, Kentucky-bred son of Dixieland Band won that day by four-and-a-half lengths in a snazzy 1:10.45. In his next start Jan. 4, under the Midwest Thoroughbreds colors, Backwater Blues won an allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event for non-winners of two races/other than by two-and-a-quarter lengths in an excellent 1:17.22 for six-and-a-half furlongs.
Backwater Blues is another “back-class” type favored by Ness, having run second in the Mountain Valley Stakes as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn.
“Another advantage I have is being stabled at a lot of different tracks, because I had watched (Backwater Blues) race at Delaware during the summer and knew what kind of competition he had been running against,” said Ness, who manages more than 100 horses in training at six different tracks. That definitely helps.”
On the flip side of that coin, Ness entered 7-year-old gelding See I A in a $5,000 claiming race Jan. 6. The winner of the 2011 Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs won by six-and-a-quarter lengths as the 9-10 favorite and was claimed by trainer Barbara McBride for new owner Neal Allread.
In horse racing, as in virtually any athletic endeavor, sport and business often overlap.
“He’s another horse I was very partial to, but it was time to (try to) move him,” Ness said.
Trainer Cathy Rountree and jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., combined for their third victory from three starters over the past two racing days when 6-year-old mare Kings Tuesday got up in the final strides to defeat Lucky Lass in a mile-and-a-sixteenth claiming race on the turf. Owned by Denis A. Dwyer, Kings Tuesday paid $19 to win.
Owner Ridenjac Racing and trainer Dennis Ward sent out two winners Wednesday. In the fifth race, the team won with 5-year-old mare Harlan’s Pepper, with apprentice jockey Jerry Villegas in the irons. The Ridenjac-Ward team took the 10th race with 4-year-old filly Golden Playmate, who was ridden by Carol Cedeno.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at approximately 12:38 p.m.
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.