by Mike Henry

OLDSMAR, FL. – The 35th renewal of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, which has produced two Kentucky Derby winners since 2007, highlights a 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs stakes schedule offering $2,660,000 in purse money.

Contested at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt oval, the Tampa Bay Derby headlines a spectacular March 7 Festival Day program that includes four stakes races worth a combined $760,000 in purse money, making it the most lucrative day of racing in the track’s 89-year history.

The Tampa Bay Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series points system, with the first four finishers earning 50, 20, 10 and 5 points toward a starting-gate berth in Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday in May.

Rounding out the Festival Day stakes card are the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth; and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes on the dirt for horses 4-and-older at a mile-and-a-sixteenth.

The 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs Thoroughbred season, which began July 1, is set to resume Saturday, Nov. 29 and run through June 30.

“The Kentucky Derby victories by our 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner, Street Sense, and our 2010 third-place finisher, Super Saver, have elevated our showcase race to national prominence and made it a significant Triple Crown prep,” said Peter Berube, Vice President and General Manager of Tampa Bay Downs.

“By running four stakes on the same card, Festival Day 2015 is certain to be one of the most exciting and memorable afternoons in track history,” Berube added. “Our three other Festival Day stakes have produced Breeders’ Cup race winners, an Eclipse Award champion and two winners of the Kentucky Oaks. Fans can again expect to see exciting Thoroughbred competition of the highest quality, both on March 7 and throughout the season.”

The full stakes schedule, which is attached, kicks off Dec. 6 with Cotillion Festival Day presented by Lambholm South, featuring a pair of $100,000, six-furlong races for 2-year-olds: the Inaugural Stakes and the Sandpiper Stakes for fillies.

The second-biggest stakes day of the meeting is the Jan. 31 Festival Preview Day presented by Lambholm South program, showcasing three stakes worth a combined $500,000 headlined by the 35th edition of the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. Although not part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system, the Sam F. Davis has stamped Kentucky Derby credentials for at least one 3-year-old in 10 of the last 11 years.

The Festival Preview Day card also features the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes on dirt for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards.

Tampa Bay Downs appreciates the ongoing support of Lambholm South, a full-service Thoroughbred farm near Ocala, Fla., that has been the training ground for more than 50 Grade I stakes winners and 10 North American champions.

If you want to get technical, you could describe the Jan. 24 card as a “Pre-Festival Preview Day” card, with three stakes worth $350,000. Topping the list is the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf for horses 4-and-older at a mile-and-a-sixteenth.

Other offerings that day include the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes on the turf for older fillies and mares at five furlongs and the $100,000 Pelican Stakes on the main track for horses 4-and-older at six furlongs.

Fans should also circle April 4 on their calendars. The track’s 13th annual Florida Cup Day celebration includes six state-bred stakes races worth a combined $450,000 in purse money, including three on the turf course.

Additional highlights of the stakes schedule include the Dec. 27 Skyway Festival Day card, featuring the $100,000 Pasco Stakes for 2-year-olds – a seven-furlong event some horsemen use as a Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby prep – and the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes for 2-year-old fillies; and the $100,000 Turf Dash for older horses on Jan. 10.