Sunday’s Fan Appreciation Day card wrapped up the final weekend of the 2015-2016 Tampa Bay Downs season. The 91-day meeting officially concludes on Thursday, June 30, which is the first day of the track’s two-day Summer Festival of Racing.
The meeting leaders in each category were recognized between races, receiving their trophies from track Vice President of Marketing & Publicity, Margo Flynn. Below are brief sketches of the 2015-2016 top performers by number of victories.
You couldn’t blame Gerald Bennett for being disappointed at finishing second in last year’s Tampa Bay Downs trainers’ race. He appeared to have a stranglehold on the top spot before Jamie Ness snatched it away, 46-43, by winning with 28 of his last 68 starters.
But you don’t last more than 40 years in the Thoroughbred business without being resilient. The 72-year-old Bennett returned to Oldsmar last November intent on knocking Ness from his accustomed perch and achieved his goal, posting 51 victories for a 12-race margin from his perennial rival entering the June 30 meeting finale.
“I heard one of the old-time baseball players, I think it was Satchel Paige, say the worst thing you can do is look back,” Bennett said. “I knew we had a lot of horses that had been laid up and freshened, and I thought we had a well-balanced stable for all kinds of conditions.
“We were able to run a lot of horses where they belonged, and it worked out well,” he said.
This is the second Tampa Bay Downs training crown for Bennett, who shared the top spot with Ness during the 2010-2011 meeting with 61 victories apiece. Bennett is also the runaway leader in purse earnings this season, exceeding $830,000, and he saddled five consecutive winners over a two-day period in March, going 4-for-4 on March 5.
Bennett’s top horse at the meeting was the 4-year-old gelding Fast Flying Rumor, which he owns with his wife Mary under their Winning Stables banner in partnership with the Midnight Rider outfit of Matt Ferris. Fast Flying Rumor won the $100,000 Turf Dash in January, achieving a 108 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest in track history. Fast Flying Rumor won three times at the meeting.
A native of Springhill, Nova Scotia, Bennett has 3,579 career victories, which is 19th all-time and 11th among active trainers. His biggest victory came in the Grade I Philip H. Iselin Handicap in 1990 with Beau Genius.
Other top horses he has trained over the years include Michigan-bred Secret Romeo, which won the Super Stakes and Pelican Stakes here in 2002 and earned $865,790; Banker’s Jet, winner of seven stakes and almost $700,000; 2007 Lightning City Stakes winner Bucky’s Prayer; and the Tampa Bay Downs five-furlong record holder on the main track, Jr’s Exchange (which previously also held the five-furlong turf mark).
Bennett, who will be based at Delaware this spring and summer, shows no signs of slowing. “What it is with horse racing, it’s what gets me up early and gets me going. I’ve always been a hard worker, and it’s exciting because you never know what’s around the corner.
“I always strive to find good young horses, and now Mary and I are breeding a few, too,” he said. “Winning the title here means a lot, and it means a lot to my team. You need the blacksmiths, the exercise riders, the grooms and the jockeys to do their part, and Mary is always on top of everything around the barn.”
His success has bred great loyalty and won him a legion of admirers, not only at Tampa Bay Downs but everywhere he competes.
By winning his third consecutive riding title at the Oldsmar oval, with 135 victories, Antonio Gallardo joined some elite company. Only Mike Manganello, Ricardo Lopez, William Henry and Daniel Centeno had previously accomplished the feat.
Manganello won the 1970 Kentucky Derby aboard Dust Commander, and the 28-year-old Gallardo spent Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where he rode Imperial Hint in the Grade III, $250,000 Pat Day Mile Stakes. Although Imperial Hint tired after setting the early pace, beating only two horses, the experience is one Gallardo will never forget.
“Unless you go there (on Kentucky Derby Day) and see it with your own eyes, you can’t know the feeling. Every jockey should go there at least one time to experience it,” he said. “I didn’t feel nervous because everybody there gives you so much love. You go into a restaurant and people can tell you’re a jockey, and it’s like you’re the king.
“Going through the tunnel on your horse (leading to the racetrack), you don’t hear anything. Then you come out, and the noise is unbelievable. The racetrack looks small because there are so many people there. Coming down the backside I could hear people on both sides screaming and even though my horse was getting tired, it makes you feel like you can keep going.”
The native of Jerez de la Frontera in Cadiz, Spain set the all-time single-season Tampa Bay Downs record last year by riding 147 winners. He went on to set a Presque Isle Downs record with 161 winners and finished the 2015 calendar year with 320 trips to the winner’s circle, second in North America to Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano.
Gallardo is returning to Presque Isle Downs for the May 22 opening of its 2016 meeting and is tentatively planning to give the ultra-competitive southern California circuit a try beginning in October. He would be accompanied by his agent, Mike Moran.
“Right now, I think I want to try California,” he said a few days ago. “The weather is great, the money is great and it could be an opportunity for me to ride a lot of nice horses.
“I should have at least two months to see how my business goes there before I decide whether to come back to Tampa or stay there,” he added.
One thing Tampa Bay Downs horsemen and fans have learned the last three years is that the Spaniard’s desire to improve is unquenchable. “He’s relentless in his work ethic,” trainer Kathleen O’Connell said on the occasion of Gallardo setting the season mark in 2015.
“I don’t care if there is one horse to breeze, he comes out for whoever’s horse it is. He is very astute at studying horses and films, and he is just a wonderful person to work with.”
Gallardo won three stakes at the current meeting, capturing the Gasparilla on R Girls a Charmer; the Florida Cup Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore on Imperial Hint; and the Florida Cup Tampa Turf Classic on Go Around.
The ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances is required of anyone wanting to have a successful career in Thoroughbred racing.
Followers of Tampa Bay Downs over the last decade aren’t surprised that perennial leading trainer Jamie Ness passed a major adaptability test this meeting with flying colors.
In late January, Ness and his main client, Midwest Thoroughbreds, parted ways after an incredibly successful seven-year partnership when Midwest boss Rich Papiese decided to move 26 horses from Tampa Bay Downs to different tracks.
The breakup derailed his chances to win a 10th consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training championship. But with Midwest gone (after winning the last six Oldsmar owner crowns under the stewardship of Ness), he was able to take dead aim on becoming the track’s top owner.
Ness appears to have achieved the feat under the Jagger, Inc., ownership banner he shares with his wife, Mandy. A resident of nearby Odessa, Fla., Ness has sent out 15 winners under the Jagger name.
With the June 30 card marking the official final day of the 2015-2016 meeting, seven other stables (topped by Billy, Donna and Justin Hays, who have 12 victories) have a mathematical chance of winning the title. But that is no reason to not recognize Ness, who led all North American conditioners in 2012 with 395 victories after finishing second the previous two years.
The 41-year-old Ness, a South Dakota native, has made a rapid climb up the training ladder, with 2,465 victories since acquiring his license in 1999.
The low-key Ness, who will manage strings at Delaware, Monmouth and Presque Isle Downs, downplayed the accomplishment of being both leading trainer and top owner. “It probably means I own too many horses,” he quipped. But adding another trophy to the case means his program continues to work, even as he continues to revamp his stable.
“It’s always nice to win a title, no matter what it is,” he said. “This was something we just kind of fell into, but you make your own luck. Good things are going to happen when you do the right thing and work hard.”
Jagger’s top horse in training is the 6-year-old gelding Ghost Hunter, owned in partnership with Triple K Stables. He is 10-for-33 lifetime with career earnings of almost $300,000. Ness also trains the graded stakes-placed 5-year-old horse Captain Dixie for another partnership.
Jagger is the sole owner of Babe’s Ruler, a 5-year-old Florida-bred mare which won three races at the current meeting.
Ness won the Florida Cup Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint in both 2011 and 2014 with Sneaking Uponyou.
LEADING APPRENTICE JOCKEY
As a youngster growing up near Fort Worth, Texas, Chad Lindsay had hopes of becoming a rodeo bull rider. But after getting thrown off more times than he could count, he decided to find a safer route, moving to Lexington, Ky., about three years ago to ride Thoroughbreds.
The early returns indicate Lindsay, whose two older brothers are still in the bull-riding game, made the right decision.
On Jan. 1 at Tampa Bay Downs, he rode the first winner of his career, piloting 5-year-old gelding Invasion Point to victory for owner Ridenjac Racing and trainer Dennis Ward. Lindsay described the victory, and his subsequent initiation by his fellow jockeys (ice water, shaving cream and baby powder) as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Lindsay continued to impress observers, riding 11 winners from 83 mounts to run away with the Leading Apprentice title. In March, he accepted an offer to move to southern California and work under agent Vince DeGregory. He won four races from 15 mounts at the recently concluded Los Alamitos meeting and won his first race at Santa Anita on Friday.
The 23-year-old Lindsay, who will retain his 7-pound apprentice weight allowance until he gets to 40 victories and 5 pounds through Jan. 1, has found southern California an eye-opening experience.
“Not knowing anybody makes a big difference. I knew almost everybody at Tampa Bay Downs,” he said. “It’s definitely a different way of living and there are a lot of (distractions), but I’m not looking for any.”
He is also getting used to the different style of riding. “Here, it seems everybody sends their horse, so you have to be real good coming out of the gate. I’m still learning,” he said.
Whether or not he returns to Tampa Bay Downs in the future, Lindsay will always value his time in Oldsmar. “It was a good place to learn a lot,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have started anywhere else.”
With the June 30 card looming as a possible tiebreaker, three horses are atop the meeting standings with four victories apiece.
Dance N Denae, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly trained by Dennis Ward and owned by his Ridenjac Racing outfit, has won four of five starts locally, including her victorious maiden claiming effort on Dec. 12.
Good Times Rambles, a 5-year-old gelding owned by MCR Stable and trained by Benny R. Feliciano, is 4-for-7 with a second and a third. Feliciano claimed him for $8,000 after his second victory of the meeting.
The third four-race winner of the meeting is the 5-year-old mare Desert Summer, which is 4-for-6 with a second at the meeting. She was claimed three times, most recently by her current owner-trainer, Bernell Rhone, for $8,000.
Down the stretch. Pedro Cotto, Jr., rode three winners on today’s card, raising his strike rate to 24.7 percent (24-for-97), the best of any jockey at the meeting with 80 or more mounts.
Cotto won the first race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Seventysevenwilow for owner John L. Wallace and trainer Joseph Minieri. He added the fifth aboard 3-year-old Florida-bred filly Louie’s Gift for owner Lynne Scace and trainer Ray Stifano.
Cotto then won the sixth race on the turf on In the Wild Clover, a 14-1 shot. The 6-year-old Florida-bred mare is owned by Endsley Oaks Farm and trained by Osvaldo Sanchez.
Willie Martinez rode two winners. He captured the third race on 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding Gemsum for owner-trainer Miranda Downing and added the 10th and final race on the turf on 3-year-old Florida-bred filly That’s My Bai for owner Hallmarc Racing and trainer Joseph Arboritanza.
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.