If Jamie Ness is worried about the prospect of not winning the 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs training title, he’s doing a great job masking his concern.
There are no worry lines creasing his face, no bags under his eyes. What you see is the calm, self-assured appearance of someone who performs their job at a high level and knows how to leave work at the office.
While it is far too early to discount his chances of a ninth consecutive Oldsmar crown, the quest bears no resemblance to a modern-day Captain Ahab in pursuit of his personal white whale.
“It’s never a goal,” said the 40-year-old Ness, who earned the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month Award after sending out six winners since Feb. 1. “I don’t do anything (designed) to do that. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, no big deal.
“I have a lot of trophies at home, and they collect dust. That’s not what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m trying to do the best I can for my owners and my horses, and if it comes out with a training title, I’m all for it. But my approach is the same as it’s been for the last eight years.”
Through today’s action, Ness is in third place in the standings with 15 victories, six behind leader Gerald Bennett and two behind Kathleen O’Connell. He has won three of the first four races of the Tampa Turf Test Starter Handicap series – two with 6-year-old gelding Brother Pat.
The conditioner laughed out loud when confronted with the question that has filtered throughout the grandstand during the first half of the 2014-2015 meeting: Whatever happened to Jamie Ness?
Rest assured, he hasn’t gone anywhere. He shares Barn 14 with his wife Mandy, a former jockey who trains the handful of horses that compete under the couple’s Jagger, Inc., ownership banner.
Ness just isn’t saddling the same number of horses as he did in recent years, including the 2011-2012 meeting, when he set a Tampa Bay Downs training mark with 79 winners. A few years ago, Ness managed more than 100 horses in training at six different tracks, which didn’t leave much time for anything else.
The resident of Odessa, Fla., currently maintains a string of 40 Thoroughbreds in Oldsmar, most owned by long-time client Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the ultra-successful operation of Rich and Karen Papiese. Ness also trains a few horses at Gulfstream Park and 30 more in Maryland, where he competes at the Laurel meeting.
Since 2007, Ness has averaged 243 victories a year. He led all trainers in North America in 2012 with 395 victories, 110 more than runner-up Steven Asmussen. The previous year, Ness posted 330 victories, 18 fewer than Asmussen. Ness was also second to Asmussen in 2010, and he was fourth in 2009, behind Asmussen, Scott Lake and Jerry Hollendorfer.
Last year, Ness won 167 races while starting 768 horses, his fewest entries in six years. He has 15 victories this season from 71 starters, the fourth-highest number of starters among Tampa Bay Downs trainers but significantly below his rate in recent meetings.
“Midwest wants to run some of their better horses up north or at Gulfstream, and they’ve turned out some horses (at their Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla),” Ness said. “Plus, we’re not as busy at the claims box as we used to be.
“We’re just kind of taking a different approach than we have in the past. I don’t have as many $5,000 claiming horses and non-winners of two or three races as I did before,” Ness said. “I have the same number of horses, but they’re different types – 3-year-olds getting ready for a race coming up, and horses coming off a layoff.”
Retirement has also played a small role. Sneaking Uponyou, a 9-year-old gelding who twice won the Florida Cup Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint and the 2010 Pelican and 2010 Turf Dash Stakes, was recently retired and will be retrained for a new career, Ness said.
Jamie and Mandy, who also have a home in Hanover, Md., reside with their two young daughters: Hannah, 2, and Emma, 8 months. Befitting his sturdy, Midwestern, farming-community roots – he grew up in Wessington Springs, S.D. – Ness is dedicated to spending as much time with his children as his profession allows.
“I don’t know if being a father has changed me much, but I love it. I try to do everything I can with them because I don’t want to miss them growing up,” he said. “If I’m not at the track, I’m home doing something with them.”
It’s also a common sight to see Jamie touring the grandstand apron carrying Hannah on his shoulder, while Mandy pushes Emma in a stroller.
But there are plenty of times when Ness has to put business ahead of pleasure. He leaves Thursday night for Maryland (his horses there are stabled at Pimlico) and won’t return until Sunday.
The results he has achieved “don’t just fall into place,” Ness said. “You have to put the work into it. You have to keep people on your staff together, and you have to have good owners. It’s a combination of hard work and trying to hone my craft every year to get better.
“It’s also the drive to win races,” Ness added. “I love winning races, and I’ve learned how to be a better loser, too. You don’t like to lose, but you learn to take your lickings and come back the next day.
“If you’re a bad loser, this is the wrong game to be in.”
While the last sentence was sincerely spoken, it would be unwise for his rivals for the Tampa Bay Downs training title to consider it a concession speech.
Trainer Ian Wilkes won two races today. In the second race, Wilkes sent out victorious 3-year-old colt Lord Tyrion for owner Dennis Farkas. Orlando Mojica was the jockey. Ness claimed Lord Tyrion from the event for $25,000 for new owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.
Wilkes also won the ninth and final race with 4-year-old gelding Bonesprings for breeder Janis R. Whitham’s Whitham Thoroughbreds, LLC. Victor Lebron was the jockey.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. There will be no turf racing due to heavy rain Tuesday.
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.