by Mike Henry

Several new faces are already making their presence felt as Tampa Bay Downs gets set for the first stakes weekend of its 2014-2015 meeting.

One of the Oldsmar newcomers, trainer John Rigattieri, is no stranger to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred scene. Rigattieri – who has saddled more than 2,600 winners in a career dating to 1972 – earned his second victory of the new meeting today, sending out 6-year-old gelding Longer Terms Doug to win the fourth race for himself and co-owner Manfred Roos.

Erick Rodriguez was the winning jockey.

Rigattieri had won 10 consecutive training titles at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts before settling for a tie for second this year. He trained more than 100 winners every year from 2004-09 and should be a force to be reckoned with throughout.

George Leonard, III, who has trained Thoroughbreds since 1991 but is a newcomer to the Tampa Bay Downs scene, burst forth today by sweeping the early daily double. Leonard saddled Dave Hearn’s 5-year-old mare Magical Cat to win the first race, then sent out 5-year-old gelding Headstone to capture the second for breeder Jim Plemmons.

Hector Rosario, Jr., rode Magical Cat and Victor Lebron was aboard Headstone. The 3-6 Leonard daily double paid $31.40. Headstone was claimed out of the second race for $8,000 by owner-trainer Carlos A. Cepeda.

Leonard saddled 12 winners this past season at Indiana Grand Race Course while also competing at Churchill Downs. He was 8-for-19 last winter at Turfway Park in Kentucky, but his success there did not interfere with his plans to try the Oldsmar oval.

“I got so cold there last year, I’d have been a hot walker to come south,” said Leonard, who has about 20 horses in training. “It’s a lot nicer being here in the sunshine.”

Leonard saddled three starters Saturday, with fourth, fifth and sixth-place finishes. “I had a couple of rough trips, so hopefully I got the bad luck out of the way,” said the native of Lake Charles, La., whose late father, George Leonard, Jr., trained in Louisiana.

Several fans near the winner’s circle performed a double take after the eighth race, won by a neck in a driving finish by 31-1 shot Flying Posse. Owned by Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trained by Joe Woodard, Flying Posse was ridden by 26-year-old Geovany Garcia – who bears a strong resemblance to his older brother, Tampa Bay Downs riding mainstay Luis Garcia.

There was no mistaking 2014-2015 leading jockey Antonio Gallardo in the winner’s enclosure. He made three trips there today, starting with 4-year-old filly Abiding Love in the third race for breeder-owner Bruce Tallisman and trainer Benny Feliciano. Gallardo also won the fifth on 3-year-old gelding Dude About Town for owner Sunshine Racing Stable and trainer Jane Cibelli.

In the seventh race on the turf, Gallardo was aboard favorite Allie’s Event, the popular 8-year-old gelding, for breeder-owner-trainer Lori Smock.

Another familiar face to triumph today was veteran jockey Harry Vega, who rode 6-year-old mare Fava to victory in today’s ninth race on the turf for owner Lambholm Stable and trainer Roy Lerman.

Vega, who has ridden 4,105 winners in his career, spent the past several months at Alan Cohen’s Arindel Farm in Ocala at the conclusion of the 2013-2014 Tampa Bay Downs meeting sharpening his skills. He placed fifth in the standings last year with 37 victories.

Thoroughbred racing resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m.

Saturday is Cotillion Festival Day Presented by Lambholm South, with a full card of 2-year-old racing highlighted by the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Both races are at a distance of six furlongs. Post time for Saturday’s first race is 12:25 p.m.

Also on tap Saturday is the “Buffet Breakfast at the Downs,” an annual gathering of horse lovers, handicappers, owners, trainers and jockeys. The breakfast, which costs $7, will be held from 8-10 a.m. in the Trackside Picnic Pavilion adjacent to the paddock.

The hot, country-style meal will include eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, toast, hash browns, pastries and juices. Attendees also receive free Grandstand admission, a Tampa Bay Downs program and a free copy of the newest edition of author/handicapper Peter Mallett’s book, Betting Tampa Bay Downs 2014-2015: An Up-to-Date Guide For Bettors Handicapping the Oldsmar oval.

Tickets may be purchased in the General Office Thursday and Friday.

Mallett will be on hand to offer betting tips for the card, including both stakes races. Fans can also watch the morning workouts, meet with owners and trainers and get autographs from jockeys when their morning schedules are completed.

The Inaugural, which is Saturday’s eighth race, has attracted a field of nine colts and geldings. Among the likely top contenders are the Ian Wilkes-trained Lord Tyrion and Supreme Justice, who was 3-for-4 for owner G. Ray Trisler earlier this year at Indiana Grand Race Course.

The Sandpiper, which is the ninth race, has drawn a field of 11 females. Stakes winner Coco’s Wildcat from the barn of trainer Kathleen O’Connell and Innovative Lady, owned by Godolphin Racing, LLC and trained by Eoin Harty, are among the leading lights.

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.