OLDSMAR, FL. – To Chad Stewart, the tradeoff is a no-brainer.
Instead of stabling his horses in the Tampa Bay Downs barn area, Stewart ships runners in from his Grace Full Oaks Farm in Ocala. That allows him to spend more time with his family: wife Dr. Laurie Stewart, a large-animal veterinarian, and the couple’s three boys.
Christian, Zackary and Jacob play whatever sport is in season, and their dad enjoys watching their games. But when it comes time to make a living, Dad loads the van with horses and makes the two-hour drive to Tampa Bay Downs.
During the first few weeks of the 2012-13 meet, Stewart has turned shipping to win into an art form. With seven victories, two seconds and four thirds from 17 starters, the Nebraska native has earned the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month Award.
Stewart knows there are no guarantees in the process. Even when the van ride goes without a hitch, horses can struggle to adapt to different surroundings or waste energy fretting about the change in their routine.
For Stewart, such uncertainty is a regular feature of racing at Tampa Bay Downs.
“A lot of our horses were born and raised on the farm and have never been anywhere else,” he said. “When it’s their first voyage off the farm, it can be like culture shock. Some will be mesmerized by the experience and it’s no big deal to some others, but if they have enough ability, they will overcome things.”
Stewart’s success is no fluke. He tied for 12th during the 2011-12 meet with 14 victories, and his 22-percent victory mark was seventh among all trainers with at least 50 starters. In addition to training for such outfits as World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., Lothenbach Stables and Tom Gregerson, Stewart breaks and prepares young horses for trainers Chris Block, Anthony Granitz, Diane Alvarado and Peter Walder.
Stewart deflects much of the credit for his quick start.
“You always hope they take off running for you,” he said. “You have to have a lot of racing luck, and we’ve been blessed in that aspect. We have really good clients and have also been blessed with real nice horses, and our surface (at Grace Full Oaks) is a nice, deep, slow six-furlong track that helps on the fitness part of it.”
Maybe Stewart’s runners sense the calm, even-handed approach of their trainer, who grew up on a crop farm in Wisner, Neb. Laurie Stewart does all the vet work on the farm and “keeps everything together,” according to her husband.
“Our environment is very laid-back,” Stewart said. “Some horses relax at the track and some get excited, but you never really know how it is all going to work out.”
While he enjoys winning, Stewart derives as much pleasure from a first-time starter who handles the demands of shipping to turn in a good performance.
Such was the case Dec. 19, when 2-year-old Falsely Alarmed – a horse bred and owned by the Stewarts – finished third in a five-and-a-half furlong maiden special weight race, won by the Stewart-trained Rammer for owner Gregerson.
“I was really happy with the way (Falsely Alarmed) ran,” Stewart said. “I didn’t know what to expect because he hunts in different woods sometimes, but he handled everything like a real trooper and I was ecstatic with third place.”
Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito has an impressive-looking 2-year-old in Midnite Poppa, who broke his maiden in Wednesday’s first race while drawing away late under jockey Daniel Centeno.
Midnite Poppa – who completed the mile-and-40-yard distance in 1:40.87 – was bred in Kentucky by My Meadowview Farm, the colt’s owner. My Meadowview Farm is owned by Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Inc.
In his previous two starts, Midnite Poppa finished third at Saratoga in August and third at Belmont in September. He is a son of Unbridled’s Song – the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 1996 Florida Derby winner – out of Island Sand.
The dam is by Tabasco Cat, who won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1994. Island Sand herself won the 2004 Acorn Stakes and was second in the Kentucky Oaks, and the following year won the Delaware Handicap.
Midnite Poppa could be one to keep track of after Jan. 1, when all Thoroughbreds turn 3 and thoughts turn to major stakes. The runner-up in the first race, Post Parade Racing’s Florida-bred Xavi, also appears to have a bright future.
Six-time reigning Tampa Bay Downs training champion Jamie Ness saddled back-to-back winners Wednesday, taking over the top spot in the standings with eight victories, one more than Stewart.
Ness – who leads the country in 2012 with 394 victories – sent out 7-year-old gelding Dazzlin Dr Cologne to win the second race for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. The Florida-bred, making his first start since April 6, has won three in a row and is 10-for-17 lifetime at Tampa Bay Downs. Daniel Centeno rode the winner.
Ness and Midwest scored in the third race with 3-year-old colt Sapphire County, who defeated 4-year-old Gibson County Line by a length and a half. Both horses are by Gibson County. Angel Serpa rode the winner.
Centeno rode three winners on the card and has 15 for the meet, three more than Serpa. In addition to his efforts on Midnite Poppa and Dazzlin Dr Cologne, Centeno won the sixth race on 4-year-old Dark Force for owner Mighty White Stallion LLC and trainer John Lakin Wells.
Races were taken off the turf Wednesday for the first time during the meet after a downpour about an hour before post time, forcing the sixth, eighth and 10th races to the main track.
Live racing resumes Friday with a first-race post time of 12:30 p.m. There is a Super High Five carryover of $10,440.91.
Tampa Bay Downs 2013 calendars will be given away free of charge while supplies last. On Saturday, older fillies and mares will contest the Minaret Stakes, a $50,000 race at six furlongs.
Saturday also marks the debut of track announcer Richard Grunder’s popular Morning Glory Club, which begins at 10 a.m. Tampa Bay Downs Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube is the featured guest. Attendees receive free coffee and donuts and free grandstand admission.