Victories keep piling up for eternally youthful conditioner; "Tampa Bay Owners Club" contest to be held in seventh race Saturday; Antonio Gallardo, Daniel Centeno ride two winners apiece; trainer Michael Stidham stays hot.
Less than two weeks into the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, trainer Gerald Bennett has thrown down the challenge. If any of his rivals have designs on unseating him from the top spot in the standings, they had better get busy.
The 74-year-old Bennett, who often hauls his own horses from track to track, has a reputation for vigor and high energy rarely found at any age. Beneath his kindly exterior lies an unquenchable desire to pile up victories and add another title to his collection.
“Once you get on top, you want to stay there,” Bennett said after saddling seven winners from 18 starters to earn the Rumba Island Bar & Grill Trainer of the Month Award. “When I trained at Detroit, I had a quote from (legendary football coach) Vince Lombardi on my office wall – ‘There is only one place in my game and that is first place.’
“Mary (his wife) keeps harping at me to cut down, cut down. But I’d like to have 90 horses. I’d like to have one in every race,” he said, grinning. “This sport is about competition, and you have to have that desire to win.”
Bennett has captured the last three Tampa Bay Downs titles and four overall, and his 40-horse stable, combined with his intuitive sense of where his horses can win, makes him a heavy favorite to add to that ledger. But it’s his seemingly tireless work ethic that fuels the Bennett barn.
On most mornings, Bennett is out the door by 4:30 a.m., eager to greet his charges on the backside. He arrives by 5, walking through his barn and checking each horse to determine its condition and temperament.
By the time the track opens at 6 a.m. for training, Bennett has a good handle on how all of his horses are feeling. “Sometimes one hasn’t eaten up or they’ve developed a temperature, and you have to change their training schedule around,” he said. “You try to get them all lined up to peak on race day.”
Bennett knows when his horses need time off from the racetrack. He took many of them to Classic Mile Park in Ocala after the Delaware Park meeting ended in October, and he believes that freshening helped his stable get off to a quick start here.
“Classic Mile has a real good track surface, and it’s a quiet environment that helps horses relax,” he said.
Bennett, who has been training Thoroughbreds since 1974, has cultivated a reputation for rehabilitating injured horses and those that have gone off form. He achieved his greatest success with Beau Genius, a minor stakes winner he picked up after his 3-year-old season.
Beau Genius won 13 stakes under Bennett’s guidance, including the Grade I Philip H. Iselin and the Grade II Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap in 1990.
Some of his other top horses include Secret Romeo, Black Belt, R Angel Katelyn, Bucky’s Prayer and Fast Flying Rumor, who established a Tampa Bay Downs Beyer Speed Figure record of 108 in winning the Turf Dash Stakes in 2016.
Bennett, the father of trainer Dale Bennett, has climbed to 15th all-time (and 11th among active conditioners) with 3,757 victories. The Springhill, Nova Scotia native trails the late Frank H. Merrill, Jr., by 217 victories for the top spot all-time among Canadian trainers. “We used to claim off each other quite a bit. There was a lot of camaraderie among trainers then,” Bennett said.
“I thank the Lord every morning that I have my health, and I ask Him to protect everyone on the track and protect the horses,” said Bennett, who spreads his stable wealth among a number of Tampa Bay Downs jockeys. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I’m doing.”
Tampa Bay Owners Club. Ever wanted to own a racehorse? Who hasn’t! On Saturday, fans get a chance to realize their dream (without the cost) in the “Tampa Bay Owners Club” fantasy-based contest.
Before the seventh race, fans will be asked to select the winner by filling out an entry blank and depositing it in a box corresponding to their choice. Anyone who picks the winner becomes part of “the syndicate” – a group of fantasy owners who get to experience many of the perks associated with the sport of kings.
Each time the winning horse returns to action during the meeting, its new “owners” will receive free admission, a program, a mutuel voucher, concession-stand discounts and an attractive ownership pin. They will also be invited to the paddock before the race and, in case of another victory, the winner’s circle.
There is no cost to enter, giving lucky fans a risk-free way to determine if Thoroughbred ownership might be in their future.
Around the oval. Antonio Gallardo and Daniel Centeno each rode two winners today. Gallardo captured the third race on the turf aboard Tony, a 3-year-old Florida-homebred gelding owned by Lambholm Stable and trained by Lambholm owner Roy S. Lerman. Gallardo added the sixth race on Light Breeze, a 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Mr. Dennys Racing Stable and Kathleen O’Connell and trained by O’Connell.
Centeno scored in the fourth race on Our Promise, a 3-year-old filly owned by Blazing Meadows Farm and trained by Tim Hamm. Centeno added the ninth race on the turf with Pollock, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Laura and Neil Barrish and trained by Charles Harvatt.
Trainer Michael Stidham extended his red-hot start to the meeting, sending out his fifth winner from 12 starts in the seventh race on the turf in Summer Sweet, a 4-year-old filly owned by Virginia Kraft Payson. Jesus Castanon was the rider.
Saturday’s 10-race card starts at 12:38 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is currently on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday racing schedule, with Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 23.
The track is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25 for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.