If it’s true that a horseman can never grow old with a promising 2-year-old in their barn, then veteran trainer Gerald Bennett plans to drink frequently from his personal Fountain of Youth on the Tampa Bay Downs backside.
The defending Oldsmar training champion believes his 40-horse stable, which includes about 25 juveniles set to turn 3 on Jan. 1, gives him an excellent chance to return to the No. 1 spot when the 2016-2017 meeting resumes on Saturday with an 11-race card.
Post time for the first race is 12:10 p.m.
Bennett – whose top horse, 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Fast Flying Rumor, won last season’s $100,000 Turf Dash Stakes while earning a track-record Beyer Speed Figure of 108 – saddled 51 winners during the 2015-2016 meeting, ending the nine-year reign of Jamie Ness as the track’s leading conditioner.
“You have to think positive in life, because it gives you something to look forward to,” said Bennett, who has won more than 3,600 races in his 30-plus-year career training Thoroughbreds. “And we have a lot of nice young horses that I expect to be very competitive here.
“We (Bennett and his wife Mary) have a home here and we love the area, and our crew loves coming back every year. They have an excellent (dirt) surface that is well taken care of, and most horses bounce off it really well after a workout. And the turf course is one of the best anywhere, although it’s tough to win races on the turf because so many good trainers send their horses here to run.
“It’s never easy, but with the volume of horses in our barn and the way they fit the conditions, I’m hoping we can be competitive and stay on top,” Bennett added. “We have a lot of followers here, and we’re here to have fun and make the sport interesting for a bunch of folks.”
The same can be said of track management, which has invested significant funds into upgrading the product and sprucing up the facility and the grounds for what promises to be a thrilling season.
Visitors to the track will notice a number of improvements, starting with the introduction of high-definition television to the viewing menu. The simulcast signal from Tampa Bay Downs will also be sent in HD to those outlets capable of receiving it.
Tampa Bay Downs has also added 250 flat-screen, 19-inch TVs throughout the Sports Gallery, Clubhouse Carrels area and Grandstand box seats. “We are always seeking ways to improve our fans’ viewing experience,” said Peter Berube, the track Vice President and General Manager. “High-definition provides a clearer, sharper picture, and we hope fans will feel almost as if they’re along for the ride during a nail-biting photo finish.”
The track’s maintenance staff has worked diligently to refresh all areas of the track, painting significant portions of the Grandstand and the paddock and pressure-washing floors and stairways.
Like a dowager queen, the 91-year-old facility presents a portrait of bejeweled, historical elegance cloaking endless marvelous memories.
Jockey Scott Spieth, who begins the meeting with 4,556 career victories – the most of any Tampa Bay Downs jockey – created a lifetime memory when he rode War Story in the Breeders’ Cup Classic earlier this month. It was the first Breeders’ Cup assignment for Spieth and the first time he’d ridden at Santa Anita.
“That was definitely special,” Spieth said.
He is quick to add that, in its unique way, so is returning every year to Tampa Bay Downs, a track immortalized years ago as the “Santa Anita of the South” by a famous sportswriter, Grantland Rice; a place where alligators still roam the infield and Papa Jim’s Kitchen on the backside attracts Thoroughbred lovers from all avenues of life.
“You get people here from so many different parts of the country – from Minnesota to Ohio to all along the East Coast,” Spieth said, “and it is always exciting to meet those new people.
“I really don’t prepare differently for this meet than any other, but you see different riders and trainers and a lot of horses competing against each other maybe for the first time. That can be a different challenge as far as handicapping,” Spieth said. “And riding the turf course requires a little more patience than at most other tracks. A speed horse can do OK, but typically an off-the-pace horse is better here on the turf.”
Spieth smiled, not wanting to divulge too many trade secrets. “I’m just anxious to get going,” he said. “The racing here is very competitive, and it’s a lot of fun.”
This season’s leading jockey competition appears totally up for grabs since the departure of three-time Tampa Bay Downs champion Antonio Gallardo, who leads North America in victories this year and is currently based in New York.
Jockey agent Mike Moran, who handled Gallardo’s bookings the last three years and now works with Albin Jimenez and Edwin Gonzalez, expects a spirited tussle for the top spots.
“A lot of jockeys want to come here this season, because they think it is going to be wide-open,” Moran said. “So much depends on who gets off to a good start, because winning puts you on the map and those are the guys who are going to get ‘live’ mounts.
“I’m going to work my hardest to see if my guys can be in the top four. I think they are very capable,” Moran added. “The big thing is, they have to stay healthy, and I pray everyone stays healthy and we have a safe meet.”
Top contenders for the 2016-2017 title should include last season’s runner-up, Daniel Centeno, who has worn the Oldsmar crown five times, including four in a row from 2006-2010; four-time champion Ronnie Allen, Jr.; Fernando De La Cruz, who took top honors this year at Indiana Grand; Leandro Goncalves, who captured the 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Downs title; Dean Butler, who won the title at Canterbury this year; and Pablo Morales, who was second at Presque Isle Downs this year to Gallardo.
New faces to the colony abound, including past two-time Tampa Bay Downs champion Jesus Castanon and Jimenez, who finished second to De La Cruz at Indiana Grand.
Each of the top 15 trainers from the 2015-2016 meeting has returned, headed by Bennett; Jamie Ness, who was leading trainer this year at Delaware and whose Jagger, Inc., operation was the leading owner last season at Tampa Bay Downs; two-time track champion Kathleen O’Connell; Dennis Ward; and Arnaud Delacour, whose 6-year-old A.P. Indian is a candidate for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Sprinter.
Others to watch include Larry Rivelli, who led the Arlington standings this year; Dale Bennett, who learned more than a few things from dad Gerald; perennial contender Jason DaCosta; and such Grade I-winning conditioners as Joan Scott, Eoin Harty and Tom Proctor.
One trainer eager to break into the upper echelon is Ocala resident Joe Arboritanza, who tied for ninth in last season’s standings and has been counting the days to Saturday like a kid anticipating his birthday.
“It’s always a relief to get home again, and I think it puts a smile on everybody’s face to be back at Tampa. We are looking for a good and successful meet,” Arboritanza said.
Arboritanza, who was based at Delaware this summer, had an option to remain up north and chase more lucrative possibilities a while longer, but he didn’t wrestle long with the decision. “It is really uplifting to see the sunshine, and I think the horses are all happy to be in Florida,” he said. “This is a challenging meet, but my horses will be ready to run and I think I just have to put them in the right spots for them to get the job done.”
Saturday’s feature race, the 10th on the card, is the $27,500 Lightning City Prep, an allowance/$100,000 optional claiming event for fillies and mares racing five furlongs on the turf. It has attracted an overflow field of 14, with only 10 permitted to start.
The $100,000 Lightning City Stakes is scheduled Saturday, Dec. 17.
The Tampa Bay Downs stakes schedule begins Saturday, Dec. 3 with a pair of $100,000 stakes races for 2-year-olds sprinting 6 furlongs: the 32nd Inaugural Stakes for colts and geldings and the 38th Sandpiper Stakes for fillies. The Inaugural closed last weekend with 28 nominations and the Sandpiper attracted 46 nominations.
Also scheduled Dec. 3 is the annual “Welcome Back” Breakfast at the Downs, from 8-10 a.m. in the Trackside Picnic Pavilion Area. For $8, attendees receive a delicious meal while watching morning workouts and mingling with horsemen and jockeys.
Andrew Demsky, the track’s Paddock Preview Host, videographer and handicapping expert, will be among a group of featured speakers.
On the wagering front, Tampa Bay Downs is adding an early Pick-5 any day 10 or more races are carded. It will begin with the first race; unlike the late Pick-5, there will be no carryover pool should no bettor correctly select all five race winners.
The “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” On-line Handicapping Contest begins Friday, Dec. 2. Fans are encouraged to test their skills against the best Oldsmar oval handicappers from across the nation, with the winner receiving a $1,000 prize. Details are available at www.tampabaydowns.com
Tampa Bay Downs will race on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule beginning Nov. 30 and continuing throughout December, except for Dec. 24. Sundays will be added to the mix on Jan. 1.
The track is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournaments in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.