A 10-race card greets fans eager to see horses, jockeys and trainers up close as 2018-2019 season resumes; boatload of new promotions and contests will add to the excitement.
Thoroughbred racing makes its triumphant return to the area Saturday when Tampa Bay Downs plays host to a 10-race Opening Day card beginning at 12:25 p.m.
The track’s 93rd anniversary season, which began July 1 during the Summer Festival of Racing and Music, consists of 91 racing days and runs through June 30. The 2018-2019 stakes schedule is comprised of 28 races worth a track-record $3.74-million in purse money.
Stakes action begins Saturday, Dec. 1 with the 15th running of the $100,000 Turf Dash for horses 3-years-old-and-upward at 5 furlongs on the grass and the $100,000 Lighting City Stakes for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward, also at 5 furlongs on the lawn.
The biggest racing day of the season is March 9 with a Festival Day program offering $1-million in purse money, headed by the 39th edition of the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-old Triple Crown prospects.
“Everything is in place to enjoy another successful season,” said Peter Berube, the track’s Vice President-General Manager. “The combination of our stakes schedule and overnight program, our outstanding main track and turf course and great weather make Tampa Bay Downs one of the most attractive winter racing sites in the country.
“Our schedule of special events has something for everyone, and we hope it will help attract new fans who like what they see and bring their friends the next time they visit. With The Silks Poker Room and The Downs Golf Practice Facility open every day, we believe we offer as much entertainment variety as any sporting venue in the area,” Berube said.
Almost all of the leading stables and jockeys are back from last season. Gerald Bennett, who has won three consecutive training titles, heads a roster that includes two-time leading Tampa Bay Downs conditioner Kathleen O’Connell; Arnaud Delacour; Keith Nations; Michael Stidham; Victor Carrasco, Jr., Dennis Ward; Derek Ryan; Monte Thomas; Anthony Granitz; and Darien Rodriguez.
Antonio Gallardo, last season’s leading jockey and winner of four of the last five Tampa Bay Downs titles, will defend against the likes of six-time champion Daniel Centeno; four-time leading jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr.; reigning George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner Jose Ferrer; two-time Oldsmar riding champion Jesus Castanon; past champion Willie Martinez; Samy Camacho; Pablo Morales; Jose A. Bracho, last season’s top apprentice rider; Scott Spieth; Mike Allen; Brian Pedroza; and Shannon Uske.
Tampa Bay Downs plans to unveil a number of new promotions, starting with the Dec. 8 “Tampa Bay Owners Club” contest that will give fans a chance to become part of a fantasy syndicate group receiving many of the perks of owning a Thoroughbred, without the financial risk.
Upgrades to the facility have been made with customer comfort and convenience in mind. New self-service AmTote International wagering terminals have met with widespread approval. A waterproof, vinyl plank floor has been installed in the Grandstand, and the winner’s circle has been repaved.
And when visitors walk through the redesigned main entrance, they’ll discover a treasure trove of memorabilia and facts in an attractive display titled “Tracking Our History,” highlighting such milestones as the ground-breaking in 1997 for the renowned Tampa Bay Downs turf course and the thrilling 2007 Tampa Bay Derby victory by Street Sense, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
On Dec. 1, Tampa Bay Downs launches its annual “10 Days of Festivus On-line Handicapping Contest,” which runs through Dec. 22. Registration is free and players compete for a $1,000 grand prize.
The “Tampa Bay Owners Club” contest on Dec. 8 gives fans a chance to become fantasy owners by picking the winner of a designated race. Anyone making a winning selection will receive free admission and a program each time “their” horse competes throughout the meeting, along with a mutuel voucher, concession stand discounts, an attractive pin and trips to the paddock and (hopefully) the winner’s circle.
Dec. 15 features the “Touch Vodka Brunch at the Downs” beginning at 9 a.m. beneath the Trackside Picnic Pavilion Tent. The cost is $8 and early arrivals can watch horses work out and meet with horsemen.
The track’s popular Calendar Giveaway takes place Dec. 26, 28, 29 and 30, with the 2019 edition given away free while supplies last, with admission.
Other promotions include the inaugural “College Day” contest on Jan. 12, awarding five college students and/or high school seniors $2,000 college scholarships; a “High Rollers Handicapping Contest”on Jan. 19; the “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, which begins on Feb. 9; and events featuring Bourbon, Barbecue & Cigars; Craft Beer & Wings; and a Seafood Fest & Crawfish Boil.