Racing News

NESS IS ZERILLO’S TRAINER OF MONTH; TURF DASH SHAPES UP AS DOOZY

by Mike Henry

Jamie Ness doesn’t look old enough to grow nostalgic. But he looks back fondly to the fall of 2005, when Tampa Bay Downs racing officials accepted his application for stalls.

The South Dakota native departed the capricious weather at Mountaineer in West Virginia for the balmy winter breezes of Florida, and neither he nor Tampa Bay Downs have been the same since. He saddled 38 winners here in his second season to win his first Oldsmar training title, and no one has been able to knock him from his perch (although Kathleen O’Connell tied him during the 2009-2010 season and Gerald Bennett equaled him the following year).

The quest for 10 in a row has already gained momentum, with Ness saddling two winners today to give him 13 over the last 13 racing days and a meet-leading 16. Although he is not represented in today’s $100,000 Turf Dash Stakes (a race he won four consecutive times, from 2007-2010), Ness will send out four horses on today’s card.

“The best move I made was the year I came here,” said the 41-year-old Ness, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. “I met (wife) Mandy here, and the Tampa Bay area has been very good to me professionally and personally.”

The Nesses lives in nearby Odessa with their daughters Hannah, 3, and Emma, 1. Mandy, a former jockey, trains a five-horse string.

Saturday’s Turf Dash, the third race on the 10-race card, brings together an outstanding field of 10 older turf sprinters, including trainer Larry Rivelli’s 5-year-old mare Richies Sweetheart, winner of the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares at the five-furlong Turf Dash distance on Dec. 19. Dean Butler has the return riding assignment as she challenges males. The morning-line favorite at 5-2 is the Australian-bred 6-year-old gelding Power Alert, trained by Brian Lynch and to be ridden by Antonio Gallardo.

Trainer Mike Dini, who sends out 4-year-old colt Gallery in the Turf Dash, will be track announcer Richard Grunder’s guest on Saturday’s Morning Glory Club Show at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand. Dini, who won last year’s “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, is preparing to head to Las Vegas later this month for the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association finals.

Next Wednesday’s card features prep races for the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares and the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for older horses, turf events that are part of the track’s Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South on Feb. 13.

The Lambholm South Endeavour Prep (Race 7), an allowance/$100,000 optional claiming event at a mile on the turf, has drawn a field of eight that includes 5-year-old mare Lexie Lou from the barn of top trainer Mark Casse. Lexie Lou is a graded-stakes winner who won both the Queen’s Plate and Woodbine Oaks Presented by Budweiser as a 3-year-old and finished second in the Grade I Hollywood Derby at Del Mar in 2014. Antonio Gallardo has been named to ride.

The Tampa Bay Stakes (Race 5 Wednesday) has also drawn a field of eight, including Casse’s multiple stakes-winning 4-year-old colt Conquest Tsunami and the Arnaud Delacour-trained 5-year-old gelding Special Envoy. It is a mile-and-a-sixteenth race on the turf.

Back to Ness, who also sent out a winner today at Laurel in Maryland, raising his career total to 2,421. That is 50th on the all-time North American career list, and a couple of the guys he has a good chance of passing this year are Hall of Fame trainers Ron McAnally (2,578) and Charlie Whittingham (2,533).

But despite his success in the Turf Dash and other stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and elsewhere, Ness hears the skeptics who wonder when he will score his first graded-stakes triumph.

“You always hear ‘He can only win claiming races,’ or ‘This guy can only win with 2-year-olds,’ ” Ness said recently outside his barn on the Tampa Bay Downs backside. “I don’t think it’s the trainer; it’s the horse. I’ve never had those kind of (graded-stakes) horses, so how am I going to win with one if I’ve never had one?”

That could change this season. His 3-year-old colt Jay’s Way, a fast-closing third in the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes here on Dec. 19, is a candidate for the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 13 and the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 12.

After winning consecutive starts at Monmouth and Delaware last September, the Midwest Thoroughbreds-owned runner finished sixth in the Grade II Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 4. The Inaugural was his first local start. “He’s by Gone Astray (winner of the Grade II Pennsylvania and Ohio Derbies in 2009) and he really wants to go two turns,” Ness said of Jay’s Way, who may stretch out to seven furlongs in the $100,000 Pasco Stakes on Jan. 23.

“The Nashua is a one-turn mile, and he got stuck down inside, had to be pushed on to stay up early and didn’t have any finish. He needs to go two turns to maximize his potential,” Ness said.

Jay’s Way’s trainer is clearly capable of getting the distance. Ness, who maintains 40-horse strings at Tampa Bay Downs and Laurel, and a handful of horses at Gulfstream, led all North American trainers in victories in 2012 with 395 and was fourth last year with 234.

Managing huge strings at two tracks is a major undertaking, and Ness credits his employees for his ongoing success. His cousin, Cory Jensen, handles the operation at Laurel, and his Oldsmar assistant Kasey Jean is in her third year. Grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders provide invaluable assistance.

“There are always going to be issues when you have 40-something employees spread between three tracks, and with your owners and jockey agents, splitting time between the human element and the equine element can make for a long day,” Ness said. “You try to keep everything running like a well-oiled machine, but someone can come in late or get sick and it puts a strain on everybody else.”

If anyone has been coming in late or getting sick lately, you couldn’t prove it by the results.

Down the stretch. Amateur psychologists might find meaning in both of today’s victories by Jamie Ness coming after Mandy won the second race with 5-year-old mare Keezheekoni. Then again, maybe not.

Jamie won with a pair of maiden claimers. Greg Rules Da, a 4-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Jack L. Treadway and ridden by Antonio Gallardo, won the third race. Gallardo also won the fifth for Ness on 4-year-old gelding Hot Tommy J., owned by the Nesses’ Jagger, Inc., operation.

Trainer Kathleen O’Connell sent out two winners back-to-back. She won the eighth race with 5-year-old mare Aribelle, bred and owned by Ann Lorenson Lynch and ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr., and took the ninth with 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Vincent Chase, owned by Flying Turtle, LLC and ridden by Eduardo Nunez.

Jockey Allen also won the first race on 6-year-old gelding Caleb’s Comet for owners Natalie Annis and Bill Kraker and trainer Randy Rarick.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.