Veteran trainer has now won four races on a single Tampa Bay Downs card three times; accomplishes feat today for four different owners (actually, six, counting two partnerships); "College Days" winners deliver bold, fresh marketing ideas.
For a fresh perspective on Gerald Bennett’s four-victory day at Tampa Bay Downs, it helped to talk to new owner Angenee Persaud, whose 4-year-old colt Soul of the Hero won the 10th and final race on the turf to enable Bennett to tie the track record he shares with two other trainers.
Bennett’s career number of victories: 3,791. Persaud’s: 1.
“It makes me feel like a million dollars,” Persaud said in the winner’s circle.
Trainer Gerald Bennett, left, and jockey Declan Cannon rehash Soul of the Hero's explosive charge in the 10th race, giving Bennett a record-tying fourth victory on the card
It’s the third time Bennett has won four on a single Tampa Bay Downs card; Jamie Ness has done it twice and Kathleen O’Connell once. The only difference today was, Bennett needed five starters to get the job done. He was 4-for-4 on the two previous occasions.
The 74-year-old conditioner won today for four different owners, and after Soul of the Hero broke his maiden in his 10th career start under jockey Declan Cannon, it was obvious Bennett was relishing Persaud’s emotional reaction as much as tying his own mark (she competes under her Poco Stables banner).
“She’s a brand-new owner, and that makes it even more special,” Bennett said. “It was just a great day. The horses were in some pretty good spots but it’s never easy. This horse was bred for the grass so we switched him back today, and he blew out really good about five days ago and ran a great race.”
Cannon was delighted to be part of Bennett’s history-making afternoon after rallying Soul of the Hero from far back to a three-and-a-half length victory from Rue de Musique in the 1-mile maiden claiming contest.
“I’m just glad he (Bennett) had one more left for me today,” Cannon said. “I let him get comfortable early in the race because I thought they were going too quick up front, and he was well-prepared and came running when I asked him.”
Bennett, who leads the track standings with 41 victories as he seeks his fourth consecutive Oldsmar training title, began the day by sweeping the early daily double. He sent out 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding High Five Cotton and jockey Daniel Centeno to win the first race for owners Winning Stables (his own outfit) and Ray Rech.
The Bennett-Centeno combination clicked again in the second with 7-year-old gelding Dog Soldier, owned by Averill Racing. Bennett added the fifth race with Whateverusaydear, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly ridden by Samy Camacho and owned by Mr Pug and J.P.G. 2, who outlasted Clever Tale by a nose.
Bennett’s only defeat came in the ninth, when Classical Lady finished a non-threatening fourth. But Bennett, a rival for Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks’ “Mr. Sunshine” nickname, believes she’ll have a great shot next time.
“College Days” winners announced. The concept behind the inaugural “College Days” essay contest at Tampa Bay Downs was to generate a wellspring of ideas from students on how racetracks can successfully market horse racing to a new generation of fans largely unfamiliar with the sport.
To describe the response as “encouraging” is an understatement.
“Apparently a lot more college-age students are paying attention than we thought, because almost every essay showed a basic understanding of Thoroughbred racing and the challenges tracks face in creating new fans among Millennials and members of Generation Z,” said Margo Flynn, the track’s Vice President of Marketing & Publicity.
“We were gratified by the effort students put into their essays and impressed by their ideas, several of which we plan to implement in the near future. Attracting new followers is essential to our business growth, and we are eager to explore ways to stoke interest and excitement among the younger set and keep them coming back,” Flynn added.
A total of 95 students entered the contest, with 25 chosen at random as finalists. From 21 essays submitted, five were chosen as winners, with each of those students winning a $2,000 scholarship awarded through the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Educational Foundation.
A panel of 12 judges selected the winners, who were required to be attending a four or two-year college or technical school, or be a high school senior planning to enroll in college. The judging criteria included feasibility of the plan, originality, clarity and an understanding of the horse racing industry.
The winners are Lauren Vojnovic, Basia Kuehn, Kayla Long, LeAnn Rhone and Carly Jones.
Each presented fresh, bold marketing ideas, and Flynn said the judges were impressed by their inherent belief that horse racing can gain in popularity if tracks make a greater effort to reach out.
“In an age when there are so many entertainment options vying for attention and consumer dollars, it’s no longer sufficient to open the gates and expect fans to come streaming through,” Flynn said.
“Racetrack owners, employees and horsemen believe in their hearts their sport deserves a prominent place in the sporting landscape, yet we’re in danger of losing ground if we can’t convince the next generation of racing’s value and fun quotient. Fortunately, we are in a position to stay current by embracing change whenever possible.”
Among the scores of fine ideas put forth by the winners and other essayists, Flynn said at least three can be implemented at Tampa Bay Downs in the immediate-to-near future.
Vojnovic suggested fan interactive activities, such as competitions between races that would be displayed on the jumbo video board. Flynn believes this could be expanded to give younger fans a chance to pit their handicapping skills against Shades’ Plays (track handicapper Andrew “Shades” Demsky), with the winners receiving prizes.
Kuehn presented the idea for a “Young Winners Race.” Individuals within a certain age range holding a winning ticket would be invited to the winner’s circle for a photograph they would likely post on social media, impressing their friends and creating free advertising for Tampa Bay Downs.
An idea to educate fans about the goings-on before and after the day’s racing action came from Rhone, who suggested “day-in-the-life” videos about the horses, jockeys, trainers, blacksmiths, veterinarians and racing officials who combine to put on the show.
Long formulated ideas for establishing partnerships with local schools, and Jones offered plans to increase the reach of the track’s social-media platforms.
Around the oval. Leading jockey Camacho added victories in the sixth and eighth races on the turf to complete a hat trick. In the sixth, he helped Cholla, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Richard Perkins and trained by David Hinsley, break her maiden in her 21st start. Camacho added the eighth race aboard New Found Treasure, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Double T Racing and Kathleen O’Connell and trained by O’Connell.
Thoroughbred racing continues here Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:55 p.m. The track is open every day 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.
Kick off your shoes. … and stay awhile at the track’s first-ever “Seafood Fest & Crawfish Boil,” scheduled March 2 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the Backyard Picnic Area. The cost is $35 a person, which includes a seafood boil, shrimp, jambalaya and the fixin’s, wine-tasting and cigar-rolling, as well as admission to the races, a Tampa Bay Downs program and chances on the prize wheel.
Tickets can be purchased on the track website, www.tampabaydowns.com , by clicking the Seafood Fest & Crawfish Boil icon and following the prompts. For details, call (813) 855-4401.