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Published Dec 24, 2023
by Mike Henry

Cindy Kaminski figured she needed a miracle Saturday to grab one of the top two spots in the 10 Days of Festivus Challenge Handicapping Contest.

Truth be told, her situation was more dire than that. She was in 23rd place, and the fields for both of Saturday’s Festivus Challenge Races, the sixth and seventh, included top-heavy favorites coming out of high-percentage barns.

But Kaminski, a retired school system paraprofessional from Mays Landing, N.J., stayed firm in the belief that a path to victory existed.

“I knew I had to go with a longshot,” said Kaminski, who settled on The Skipster in the seventh race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week on the turf. “I checked his past performances and they didn’t look too bad, and I saw nobody (in the contest) had bet him. My bankroll was $76 at that point and the leader was around $130, so I thought that was my only shot.”

The 5-year-old Arkansas-bred gelding went off at 76-1 (numerology students, take note) in a race in which Conversing, the eventual winner, was 1-2. Under jockey Jose Batista, The Skipster was poised to pull off a shocker before Conversing took over in deep stretch.

The Skipster paid $26.20 to place and $13 to show, making the result as good as a victory for Kaminski. The $39.20 boost to her bankroll rocketed her to $115.20, $10.80 ahead of runner-up Tom Driscoll of Flagler Beach, Fla.

Kaminski receives the first-place Festivus Challenge prize of $1,000 and Driscoll collects $500. There were 1,020 participants, but only 13 remained after nearly everyone ran out of lifelines and was eliminated.

Kaminski had scored with another longshot on the second day of the contest when 4-year-old gelding Bold Medication won and paid $22 to win, $11.20 to place and $6.40 to show.

This was Kaminski’s second year playing the Festivus Challenge. “My husband Alex and his friend are big horse racing people, and they encouraged me to play,” she said. “It’s amazing. I don’t watch the races – it’s sort of a superstition, I guess –so my husband lets me know what’s happening.”

Alex could barely keep his jaw from hitting the floor as the race unfolded. “I thought (The Skipster) was going to win,” he said.

“It was worth taking a shot. You never know what will happen,” Cindy said, before trying to make sense of things with a dose of Yogi Berra-ese: “When a horse goes off at 70-something-to-1, what are the odds?”

Driscoll, a former Zephyrhills resident who still raves about the lobster panini in the Tampa Bay Downs clubhouse, credits years of experience playing the Festivus Challenge for his second-place performance. “My wife Andrea discovered this contest 10 or 12 years ago, and it was like a Christmas present for me,” Driscoll said. “Every year it’s a blast.”

The Driscolls founded the Panda Hugs Learning Center, a child-care center in Tampa, before selling it three years ago. Tom Driscoll is a huge fan of Thoroughbred racing, spending a few days this year at Saratoga.

Driscoll was in fifth place entering Saturday’s action, about $30 behind the leader, and like Kaminski knew a longshot was needed to cash in. His choice, 18-1 shot Good Enough for Me in the sixth, finished a non-threatening sixth, but Driscoll aimed his focus on the future.

“I’ll definitely be playing again next year, and I’ll be going for the win,” he said.

Around the oval. Candidate was impressive in his first start since finishing sixth in the Grade II Penn Mile on June 2, grabbing the lead at the outset and holding on for a nose victory from Forever Souper in the sixth race. Max K. O. finished third. Candidate’s time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf was 1:41.98. He is owned by Mark Grier and trained by Arnaud Delacour.

The victory was one of three turf triumphs today for jockey Daniel Centeno, who turned 52 Monday. He won the second race on Joe Brains, a 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by John Grossi’s Racing Corp. and trained by William Downing. Centeno also won the fourth with 4-year-old gelding Dark and Fitzy, owned by Rashid’s Thoroughbred Racing and LBR Racing Stable and trained by Richard Sillaman.

Leading trainer Kathleen O’Connell sent out two winners. She won the third race with Chris’s Motown Gal, a 3-year-old filly owned by Double D Stable and ridden by Ademar Santos. O’Connell added the seventh, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, with 2-year-old Florida-bred colt Banded Rocket, owned by Frank Fletcher Racing Operations and CaSal Stables and ridden by Antonio Gallardo.

O’Connell also sent out the runner-up in the race, David’s Songs. Both were first-time starters.

Tampa Bay Downs will be closed Monday, Christmas Day. The track re-opens Tuesday for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.

Tampa Bay Downs will conduct a nine-race card Wednesday beginning at 12:20 p.m. Wednesday is Calendar Giveaway Day, with racegoers receiving the 2024 version of the track’s calendar at no charge, while supplies last. 



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