Around the barns of veteran trainers, such as Dale Bennett, Thoroughbreds will always be the feature performers. Even as tracks cite the need for slot machines and casino-style gaming to remain competitive in a challenging economic climate, Bennett keeps his focus squarely on the horses.
“It’s in my blood, I guess is the best way to describe it,” said Bennett, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month after sending out three winners from his first five starters. “Every time a new horse walks into my barn, it is always exciting to see what you can do with them, and once you have your thumb on them, everything else should fall into place.”
The 43-year-old Bennett primarily trains in two states, Florida and Illinois, where “uncertainty” is a byword. He also belongs to a profession in which winning with one of every five starters qualifies as a rousing success. But as any horse player can attest, the promise of better days ahead keeps the sport’s devotees coming back.
Bennett added to his early meeting-leading title today, saddling 5-year-old gelding To the Stars to win the fourth race. The winner is owned by Equiforce and Keith Hoffman. Antonio Gallardo was the jockey. To the Stars was claimed from the race by trainer Joe Woodard for new owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays.
Bennett, who grew up on a farm near Campbellville in Ontario, Canada and has worked with horses since he was 6, considers himself fortunate to train for such individuals as John D. Santina (Savoy Stable) and Peter Vegso, the original publisher of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. Both have been involved in racing for enough years to understand poor performances and the occasional dry spell are part of the deal.
The conditioner also has ownership interests with various partners in at least 10 horses. Some of his top horses include Savoy Stable runners Distorted Type, a 3-year-old stakes-placed filly which broke her maiden here last season; Fancy Man, a 3-year-old colt which is also stakes-placed; Gimmeadrink, an 8-year-old gelding which is 17-for-44 lifetime; and Stormy Pacific, a 4-year-old gelding which has competed against graded-stakes competition.
Bennett also trains Big Legacy, a 6-year-old gelding which finished third in last weekend’s $110,000 Claiming Crown Express at Gulfstream and has won 11 of 27 career starts, for owner Steven Simonovic. For many of his others, such success remains elusive.
“You’ll win a few and then go on a cold streak, and that’s tough to deal with sometimes. You have owners who want answers why their horse didn’t perform well,” said Bennett, whose career 22-percent strike rate is among the best in the business. “You have a lot of explanations to come up with, but you learn how to get through it.
“If something goes wrong with a horse you have to be honest and tell your owner exactly what’s going on, which is not the easiest thing to do, especially when the horse is injured or sick,” Bennett said. “A lot of times they’ll want to put a time frame on it, but it may be a day-to-day situation. Then you may get a horse ready and something else happens that costs you another two or three weeks. It is costly financially, and it is costly emotionally.”
About all Bennett can do is what has worked his entire career, what he has learned through trial and error and what he has learned from his father, top trainer Gerald Bennett. Those methods mostly revolve around treating each horse in his stable on an individual basis.
“It’s no different in that sense than running a football team, or a classroom of kids,” Dale said. “They all have their issues. One horse I brought in here early is real finicky, and when I ship him somewhere it takes a few days for him to start eating. He’s not one who can come here and run right off the trailer.”
Bennett, whose wife, Denise, handles the business end of their operation, brought most of his horses to Tampa Bay Downs early to prepare for the current meeting. It is a game plan he has used to great success in past seasons, as well.
“The more a horse can get settled into their environment, the more comfortable they are, the better they’ll eat, the more they’ll get into their program,” he said. “I brought most of our horses about three-and-a-half weeks before Opening Day (Nov. 28), got them a work over the track and got them clipped, because they start to grow their long hair up north in October. I think getting them acclimated that way helps a lot.”
Down the stretch. Dale’s father, Gerald Bennett, has a top contender for the $100,000 Turf Dash on Jan. 9. His 3-year-old gelding Fast Flying Rumor, ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr., sat off a blazing early pace before rolling past favored Rivzinthehouse on the turn and winning the $28,000 Turf Dash Prep in 55.72 seconds, about a second off the Tampa Bay Downs turf course five-furlong record.
Fast Flying Rumor paid $28.60 to win. He is owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables in partnership with Midnight Rider. Wild Woo Who closed with a rush to edge Rivzinthehouse for second. Fast Flying Rumor won the June 14 Select Stakes at Monmouth Park at five-and-a-half furlongs on the turf before three consecutive sub-par efforts that resulted in a three-month break from competition.
“He had been getting dehydrated after his races, so we gave him some time off and freshened him,” Bennett said. “The Turf Dash is what we’ve been waiting for, as long as he did what he did today and he bounces out of it good.”
Fast Flying Rumor, which was bred in Florida by Gilbert G. Campbell, won the Select Stakes at 17-1, defeating the Edward Plesa, Jr.-trained Souper Colossal, a multiple-stakes winner who competed in the 2014 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and has posted second-place finishes in this year’s Grade II West Virginia Derby and Grade III Smarty Jones Stakes.
On today’s card, jockey Fernando De La Cruz won with three of his five mounts, all for different trainers. The native of Huancavelica, Peru won the first race aboard Florida-bred 3-year-old filly Gimmedapurse for owner-trainer Jason DaCosta. De La Cruz captured the second race on 3-year-old gelding Sandro for owner Richard Perkins and trainer David Hinsley, then scored in the fifth race on the turf, coming from behind on 3-year-old colt Sabbatarian, bred and owned by Jim H. Plemmons and trained by George Leonard, III.
Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo rode two winners today and has 297 in 2015, second in North America to Javier Castellano. Gallardo won the fourth race on 5-year-old gelding To the Stars (see above) and added the seventh race on 7-year-old horse Live in Joy for owner Daniel Alonso and trainer Efren Loza, Jr.
Trainer Dale Bennett’s charge Distorted Type is entered in Saturday’s third race, a one-mile allowance/$62,500 optional claiming event on the turf in which she’ll face five rivals. The morning-line favorite at 9-5 is the 4-year-old filly Speed Seeker, who won the Grade III Ontario Colleen Stakes at Woodbine in 2014. Speed Seeker is trained by Joan Scott and will be ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Saturday’s feature is the ninth race, a $23,000 allowance at a mile on the turf for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward. The morning-line favorite at 2-1 is the 4-year-old filly Babe’s Ruler, who was claimed from her previous start, a victory here on Dec. 5, by trainer Jamie Ness for his Jagger, Inc., stable. Antonio Gallardo is slated to ride.
All Children’s Hospital jockey visit set. Jockeys from Tampa Bay Downs will visit patients and their families at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Tuesday afternoon. A division of Johns Hopkins Medicine, All Children’s Hospital is a leader in pediatric treatment, education, research and advocacy and provides expert care for infants, children and teens with some of the most challenging medical problems imaginable.
This is the second consecutive year jockeys have chosen to visit All Children’s during the holiday season, bringing goggles, hats, stuffed animals, toys and coloring books, as well as their athletic selves, to cheer youngsters with potentially life-limiting diseases.
The visit will begin at 1 p.m. Media members desiring to provide coverage should contact Tampa Bay Downs Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn or Publicity Assistant Mike Henry.
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.