Fans who have waited patiently for Thoroughbred racing to return to Tampa Bay Downs get their reward Wednesday with a nine-race card that marks the continuation of the track’s 88th season.
The 91-day meeting, which officially began July 1, will be highlighted by the richest stakes schedule in track history and the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus, which offers the possibility of a $100,000 payout to a lucky fan.
Post time for Wednesday’s first race is 12:30 p.m. Anyone attending the races Wednesday will receive a pass good for free grandstand admission throughout December.
After an off-day Thursday, Tampa Bay Downs will return to action Friday and Saturday, with Saturday’s Lambholm South Cotillion Festival Day card featuring a full slate of 2-year-old racing, including the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes and the $100,000 Sandpiper.
Breakfast at the Downs on Saturday is from 8-10 a.m. in the Backyard Picnic Pavilion, with fans getting a chance to watch morning workouts and meet trainers and jockeys with the $6.95 price of admission.
Trainers and jockeys from the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes and Midwest regions, as well as south Florida and Ocala, have migrated to Oldsmar to compete for their share of purse money – as well as to enjoy the ambiance and charm that led Golden Age sports writing legend Grantland Rice to describe Tampa Bay Downs as “the Santa Anita of the South.”
Wednesday’s “Opening Day” card includes two races on the turf course. The featured eighth race, an allowance/$62,500 optional claiming event at a distance of a mile, has drawn a field of eight colts and geldings, of which five are stakes winners. The 9-5 morning-line favorite is 5-year-old gelding Mister Pippit, who has won four of his last six starts.
Mister Pippit, who is owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., is trained by Jamie Ness and will be ridden by Erick Rodriguez.
Several other horses familiar to Tampa Bay Downs fans are also entered Wednesday, including 5-year-old gelding Crimson Knight – the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up – in the sixth race on the turf and past Pelican Stakes-winning gelding See I A in the seventh race.
All of the track’s popular wagering formats have returned, including rolling Pick-3s, the Super High-5 on races four and nine (requiring bettors to pick the first five finishers, in order) and the Pick-5 (requiring bettors to select the winners of the day’s final five races).
An early story line revolves around jockey Fernando De La Cruz’s quest to pick up career winner No. 1,000. The 27-year-old De La Cruz, who is named to ride seven horses Wednesday, was second in the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs standings with 75 victories. He currently has 999 victories.
Between races, fans are encouraged to visit the new Riders Up! pub on the first floor of the grandstand, directly across from the finish line, and the remodeled Metro Deli on the west side of the first floor of the grandstand. Both areas are certain to heighten the experience for long-time fans and first-time visitors alike.
Other new food-service offerings include grilled chicken sandwiches, corn dogs, fries and chicken quesadillas at the north end of the grandstand, and barbecue pork sandwiches and nachos at the south end concession area.
With Friday and Saturday’s action, Tampa Bay Downs will stage an Opening Week filled with racing excitement.
Tickets for Saturday’s “All-You-Can-Eat” breakfast buffet are available in the General Office and will also be sold that morning at the gate. In addition to breakfast, fans receive free grandstand admission, a Tampa Bay Downs program and a copy of “Betting Tampa Bay Downs 2013-2014: An Up-To-Date Guide For Bettors Handicapping The Oldsmar Oval,” by Peter Mallett, who will conduct a handicapping seminar from 10-11 a.m.
Saturday’s Inaugural Stakes for colts and geldings and the Sandpiper Stakes for fillies kick off a banner stakes schedule worth more than $2.7 million in purse money.
Tampa Bay Downs will pay $1 million to the owners of any 3-year-old that wins its Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 1; the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8; and the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
Additionally, immediately after the Davis, the winning jockey will drawn a name from a bin among fans who have correctly selected the winner. That fan will become eligible to collect $100,000, should their choice go on to win the Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.