The exodus began as a trickle. A couple of weeks ago, trainers started shipping a handful of horses to tracks that recently launched their spring meetings, such as Keeneland and Indiana Grand, or started preparations to move to tracks about to open, like Monmouth, Delaware Park, Presque Isle Downs, ThistleDown, Belterra and Canterbury.
Now, with seven days remaining in the 2015-2016 Tampa Bay Downs meeting (including the June 30 card that launches the track’s two-day Summer Festival of Racing), horse trailers are departing the backside with an inevitable frequency that makes everyone wonder how the last five months passed so quickly.
Never known as a sentimental lot, racetrackers still can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness about leaving the west-central Florida playground that first conducted Thoroughbred racing in 1926.
“It’s gone by fast,” said leading trainer Gerald Bennett, who will be stabled this spring, summer and early fall at Delaware Park, with the ability to ship in for races at other mid-Atlantic, Kentucky and Ohio tracks. “We’d like to be racing here year-round, if we could. Even if they just raced weekends, or three days a week, I’d stay here all year. I think a lot of people would.”
Bennett has campaigned horses at Tampa Bay Downs for about the last 30 years, with an occasional foray to south Florida in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “This is an excellent racetrack, they take good care of the facilities and they do a good job on the backside. That’s the name of the game – you have to be happy where you’re at.
“I feel right at home here. People always come up to me wishing me luck, and a lot of people that follow you try to get that chemistry in the air going, all that kind of stuff going with you that you need to win races. This is a ‘people-person’ kind of place,” he added.
Bennett, who has saddled 50 winners during the 2015-2016 meeting, is on the verge of clinching his second training title at Tampa Bay Downs. He is a virtual lock to dethrone nine-time defending champion Jamie Ness, with whom he tied for the top spot during the 2010-2011 campaign, each making 61 trips to the winner’s circle.
Ness, currently second in the trainers’ standings with 37 victories (his Jagger, Inc., enterprise leads the owner standings, with 13 victories), has also been competing at Laurel in Maryland, where he is third in the standings with 18 victories.
Tampa Bay Downs and Laurel each conduct their final weekends of racing May 7-8, after which Ness will move the majority of his horses to Delaware Park while running “satellite outfits” at Monmouth in New Jersey and Presque Isle Downs in western Pennsylvania. Ness is a three-time training champion at Delaware.
Kathleen O’Connell, third in the Oldsmar standings with 36 victories, will again stable horses in south Florida and at Monmouth, keeping about 36 at Gulfstream Park West and 30 at Monmouth. O’Connell was leading trainer at Tampa Bay Downs during the 1998-1999 meeting and tied Ness for the top spot six years ago with 51 victories each.
Among the other leading Tampa Bay Downs trainers, Arnaud Delacour will be based at Delaware and the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland; Dennis Ward is heading to Monmouth Park; Dale Bennett, Gerald Bennett’s son, plans to compete at Arlington outside Chicago; Jason DaCosta will be at Monmouth and ThistleDown; William “Buff” Bradley will race at Keeneland and Churchill Downs; and Tom Proctor will be at Delaware and Fair Hill.
Ian Wilkes will be in Kentucky; Keith Nations will be at Delaware, while keeping a few at Parx in Philadelphia; Aldana Gonzalez is going to Delaware; and David Hinsley and Anthony Granitz are shipping horses to both Arlington and Indian Grand. Joan Scott will compete in Kentucky and at Monmouth. Eoin Harty is headed to Arlington.
Many of the top jockeys at Tampa Bay Downs will resume their competition on the synthetic Tapeta surface at Presque Isle Downs, which begins its season May 22. That group is headed by Antonio Gallardo, who won twice today and is well on his way to a third consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title with 127 victories.
Among the other Tampa Bay Downs riders preparing to move their tack to Presque Isle are Ronnie Allen, Jr.; Ademar Santos; Pablo Morales; Erick Rodriguez; Willie Martinez; Huber Villa-Gomez; and Mike Allen.
Daniel Centeno, the five-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion and current runner-up to Gallardo with 89 victories, will be competing at Delaware and Pimlico. Dean Butler, who rode career winner No. 2,000 Friday, is returning to Canterbury Park in Minnesota, where he has won four titles.
Jose Ferrer and Chelsey Keiser will compete at Monmouth, as will Pedro Cotto, Jr., and recent Tampa Bay Downs addition Vicky Baze. Fernando De La Cruz has already relocated to Indiana Grand, which began its season Tuesday, while Ricardo Feliciano has moved to ThistleDown.
Manoel Cruz and Victor Lebron have not yet finalized their plans.
Down the stretch. Trainer Dennis Ward sent out back-to-back winners on today’s card. He won the sixth race with 4-year-old Idaho-bred filly Carmen’s Secret, owned by Paul K. Girdner and ridden by Vicky Baze. Ward captured the seventh race on the turf with 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding Stirling Castle, owned by Hot Scot Racing Stables and ridden by Jose Ferrer.
Jockey Antonio Gallardo swept the early daily double, which paid $88.80. He won the first race on Slapjack, a 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding bred and owned by Denis A. Dwyer and John Reynolds and trained by Edward L. Williams. Gallardo captured the second race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Springmeier for breeder-owner Robert D. Gibson and trainer John G. Vinson.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 p.m. There are seven days remaining in the 2015-2016 meeting, with no racing scheduled Sunday, May 1, before the three-day Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands weekend action May 6-8.
The Longines Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies is May 6, with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands for 3-year-olds May 7; first-race post time at Churchill Downs both days is 10:30 a.m., and the gates at Tampa Bay Downs will open at 10.
As an added bonus, Sunday, May 8 is Fan Appreciation Day at Tampa Bay Downs. Grandstand admission is free and hot dogs, sodas and 12-ounce beers cost $1 from noon-3 p.m.
The meeting officially concludes June 30, which is the first day of the two-day Summer Festival of Racing that kicks off the Fourth of July weekend. The July 1 card is the first day of the 2016-2017 meeting.
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