by Mike Henry

Gerald Bennett is ready to let the Tampa Bay Downs racing community in on a secret.

The 71-year-old conditioner is keen on winning a second Oldsmar training title.

“I’m turning over all the stones to make sure I don’t miss nothing,” Bennett said with a smile after extending his winning streak to five races with 4-year-old filly Classic Kate’s gritty neck victory in the second race. “I say my prayers when I go to bed to just get me up and keep me healthy so I can get back at it the next day.

“It would be a good honor to get leading trainer here this year, and we’ve got some stock with some conditions left and a few other (promising) maidens. I’ve got a good crew on the backside, and they want to keep winning, too.”

The man Bennett is chasing – in a figurative sense, since Bennett has a 31-27 lead in the standings – is Jamie Ness, who has won the last eight Tampa Bay Downs training crowns. The two shared the 2010-2011 meeting title with 61 victories each.

Kathleen O’Connell, who won the eighth race – the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week – with 5-year-old horse Mythical Man, is third with 23 victories. She shared the 2009-2010 title with Ness, her second crown at Tampa Bay Downs.

Six years ago at ThistleDown outside Cleveland, Bennett threatened Ness’ track record of saddling nine consecutive winners. His streak at the Ohio track ended at eight, but his current run will be alive and well entering Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Downs card, on which Bennett has entered two horses.

Bennett, who celebrated a birthday Thursday, won with his last three starters on Saturday, including an impressive six-and-a-half furlong allowance/optional claiming victory by Florida-bred 3-year-old gelding Fast Flying Rumor in the eighth race.

His fourth consecutive victory came in today’s first race with 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Taipan’s Advantage, bred and owned by Lorna Possler and ridden by Daniel Centeno.

The victory by Classic Kate, bred by Bennett and his wife Mary and owned by their Winning Stables, Inc., was doubly rewarding. The Florida-bred daughter of Meadow Prayer-Smokin Mary did not make her first start until January of this year due to leg problems, but is now 2-for-3 with today’s victory at the $12,500 claiming level.

“Mary acupunctured her and worked on her and worked on her to get her ready to race,” Bennett said.

Bennett changed things up for today’s race after Classic Kate tired in her previous start, finishing last. “We took the tongue strap off her, because she hated it the last time. She lost a back shoe probably turning for home today, and that’s why she was kind of drifting in a little at the end. But the main thing is she won. I thought they would beat her today because I had to slack off on her training a little,” he said.

Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo rode both Classic Kate and Mythical Man, giving him 106 victories for the meeting.

Also on today’s card, trainer Jason DaCosta and jockey Fernando De La Cruz combined for a pair of victories. They won the third race with 3-year-old filly Gimmedapurse, a 3-year-old filly also owned by DaCosta. They next captured the fifth race with 6-year-old gelding Horn Buckle, owned by DaCosta in partnership with White Wabbit Wacing, LLC.

Luis Garcia rode two winners. In the sixth race on the turf, 4-year-old gelding Wing Foot broke his maiden under a well-timed ride for owner Augustin Stable and trainer H. Graham Motion. Garcia came right back in the seventh on 4-year-old filly Lady Ice for breeder-owner Charles Galli and trainer Lonnie Arterburn.

Today’s fifth race was named in honor of late horsemen John Herold, Jr., and his son, Rusty Herold. The elder Herold spent 60-plus years in the sport as an owner, trainer and, in later years, a horse racing enthusiast who loved spending an afternoon at Tampa Bay Downs.

Rusty was also a trainer and a farrier who worked with such notables as former Tampa Bay Downs co-owner George Steinbrenner and former NFL head coach Buddy Ryan. Rusty was also an avid hunter who loved the outdoors and a passionate golfer.

The 40-strong gathering of family and friends in the winner’s circle after the race – the largest of the meeting – presented a major challenge for track photographer John Duca to squeeze everyone into the frame. And it was a fitting tribute to the Herolds, beloved by everyone they met through their racing travels.

Wednesday’s 10-race card begins at 12:40 p.m. There is a Super High-5 carryover of $3,460.04.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 5 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and Three Card Poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.