by Mike Henry

It’s a subject that comes up every so often, because Gerald Bennett has been working with horses more than half his life and wife Mary wants to make sure he gets a chance to enjoy everything else life has to offer.

Even though they know how the discussion is going to end, it’s a reminder they are in Thoroughbred racing for the long haul.

The only real unknown is whether the horses need them more than they need the horses.

“I always say I’ll be doing this until they shovel dirt over me,” said the 70-year-old Bennett, who possesses more energy than a lot of folks half his age. “You never know when you’re going to get the next real good horse.”

That eternal search has brought Bennett, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month with a meet-leading 15 victories, to the winner’s circle on 3,480 occasions. Among his most notable performers are Grade I winning millionaire Beau Genius; Secret Romeo, a multiple-stakes winner and Tampa Bay Downs fan favorite who earned almost $900,000; Bucky’s Prayer; Blind River Fox; and scores of less-distinguished horses such as Down From Heaven, a mare which won nine consecutive races at the old Detroit Race Course in 1986.

But every bit as special to the Bennetts is a horse such as Classic Kate, their homebred 4-year-old filly Mary nursed back to health from a serious leg injury that pushed back her first start to today’s fifth race, a maiden claiming event for older fillies and mares.

“She was totally lame. She couldn’t leave her stall for two months, and we weren’t sure if she was going to live,” said Mary, who administered laser therapy for five months to help Classic Kate prepare for a career on the track.

In true storybook fashion, Classic Kate won the five-and-a-half furlong event under jockey Jonathan Zayas as the only first-time starter in the 10-horse field, out-gaming Shayenut’ntonobody after a prolonged stretch battle for a neck victory.

Bennett – whose son Dale Bennett also trains locally – has always had a keen eye for a racehorse. In 1998, he purchased a 3-year-old filly named One Buck Coyote on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch for $22,500. She won three races for Bennett, then became a broodmare for the couple.

In 2002, they bred One Buck Coyote to Meadow Prayer and got Bucky’s Prayer, a multiple-stakes winner who earned $280,692, set a five-furlong stakes record (since equaled) of 55.50 seconds in winning the Lightning City Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course and finished second in the 2006 Grab the Green Stakes at Saratoga.

And now the Bennetts have high hopes for a 2-year-old filly out of Bucky’s Prayer, by 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Big Drama. “She’s built just like her mother,” Bennett said hopefully after visiting her in Ocala on Tuesday. “We’re giving her plenty of time to grow up.”

During his magnificent career, Bennett has always tried to stay one step ahead of the competition. It’s why he recently spent almost $30,000 for a Cytowave Equine Therapy Device that employs magnetic therapy to promote healing for tendon and ligament injuries, bruises, bucked shins and other Thoroughbred ailments.

While he keeps up to date on the latest industry innovations for equine welfare, Bennett has long valued the contributions of his people, such as stable foreman Carlos Cacho. “I have a good crew, people who have been with me 15 or 20 years,” Bennett said. “They all know the routine, and we give our horses the best quality feed and supplements and keep a nice, clean barn.”

You don’t get to 3,500 victories (which Bennett hopes to achieve at the current meeting) by ignoring the little details that keep horses happy and eager to perform. But what’s more remarkable is Bennett’s 20.7 win percentage, well above the sport’s average.

“I strive to win all the time,” he said. “There’s nothing like being a winner. That’s where you should be, and that’s how you get owners to keep coming to you.”

And Bennett, who races some of his 40-horse stable with Mary under their aptly named Winning Stables, Inc., banner, is attracting owners in droves. During a recent streak from Dec. 27-Jan. 18 he saddled eight winners, six for different owners.

Included in that group was a 3-year-old colt he has high hopes for, Kentucky-bred This Boy’s Sharp (a homebred for W. Kenan Rand, Jr.), who won a five-and-a-half furlong, $50,000 maiden claiming event on Jan. 14 in his Oldsmar debut.

“He’s a nice colt. He has a super way of going,” Bennett said of the Sharp Humor offspring, out of an Afleet Alex mare. “When (jockey) Danny (Centeno) won on him, he told me ‘Gerry, when you stretch this horse out (in distance), you may find you have a really nice horse.’ ”

The Bennetts keep nine broodmares in Ocala – three in foal to First Dude and two in foal to Two Step Salsa – and in addition to the Big Drama-Bucky’s Prayer filly, they have five 2-year-olds by Indiana sire Silver Mountain.

With their total immersion in the sport, it probably is safe to assume Mary is kidding when she asks her husband about retirement. He’s the first to admit he craves another Tampa Bay Downs training title, to go with the one he shared with Jamie Ness in 2010-2011, the 10 or so he won at Detroit and one at ThistleDown in Ohio.

In today’s featured eighth race, a $24,000, six-and-a-half furlong allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event for horses 4-and-upward, 5-year-old Palace Barista returned to his form of last winter, rallying from off the pace to win by a half-length from fast-closing Tairneach in a four-horse blanket finish. Palace Barista is owned and trained by his breeder, Lynne M. Scace.

Palace Barista, making his first start since late September, won the Pelican Stakes in January of 2014 and was reunited with his jockey from that success, Harry Vega. The son of Lido Palace-Lady of Prestige, by Unreal Zeal, raced the six-and-a-half furlongs in 1:16.86.

Dean Butler rode two winners on today’s card. He won the third race on 6-year-old mare Dreamed a Dream for owner Kathy Raymond and trainer Robert A. Raymond, then returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh race on the turf on 8-year-old gelding My Charming Clyde for owner Grantland Johnson and trainer Bernell Rhone.

Both the Pick-5 and Super High-5 were hit today. The $1 Pick-5 combination of 4-1-7-7-9 paid $16,712. The $2 Super High-5 combination of 9-5-3-4-2 paid $20,400.40.

In the sixth race, a claiming event for horses 4-years-old and upward at a mile-and-40-yards, the first six finished in exact post position order. The completed order of finish, by post position, was 1-2-3-4-5-6-9-7-10-8. The winner, the 6-year-old gelding It Takes Heart, is owned by Brittany Terlep and trained by Rory Barron and was ridden by Anthony Stephen.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. A tripleheader of outstanding races is on tap, headlined by the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.

Also slated are the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares 4-and-up at five furlongs on the turf and the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-and-up going six furlongs on the main track.

“Live It Up Challenge.” Registration has begun for the second annual, free online “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, with players vying for the grand prize of a seat at the 2016 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship and $1,000 in cash.

Also at stake are additional prizes of $1,000 for second place, $500 for third and $500 for most winners selected throughout the contest, which runs from Saturday, Jan. 31 – which is Festival Preview Day at Tampa Bay Downs – through Saturday, April 4, which is Florida Cup Day.

Players can register online and get the complete set of rules at on the Internet. All wagers are mythical. Players must make a selection every day; those skipping a day incur a strike, with three strikes ending their participation. Players also incur a strike when their selection in one of that day’s “Challenge Races” does not finish first, second or third.

All players begin the competition with two life lines. A new feature will give players the opportunity to purchase two additional life lines before the contest and extra life lines at two specified times during the competition. The deadline to register is 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, the first day of the contest.

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.