by Mike Henry

With five victories from nine starters since April 25, Jamie Ness entered today’s Thoroughbred action on one of those mini-hot streaks that have propelled him to the top of the Tampa Bay Downs trainer standings eight years in a row.

With 46 victories, the 40-year-old Ness leads rivals Gerald Bennett (43) and Kathleen O’Connell (39) with only the meeting-ending June 30 card remaining. That’s a long wait for any of the three to be crowned, but it would be worth it for Ness, who has evolved into the role of a “junior” elder statesman since winning his first Oldsmar title with 38 victories in 2006-2007.

“I have been training (at Tampa Bay Downs) quite a while, but it seems like yesterday that I got there for the first time,” Ness said this morning from his current base at Delaware Park. “We live a gypsy lifestyle, and you’re always excited to go north when Tampa ends, but you’re just as excited to get back in the winter. That’s the lifestyle we lead.”

Ness is bidding to become the first trainer in the 89-year history of the Oldsmar oval to win nine track titles. The late Don Rice won eight, which were spread out from 1994-1995 to 2004-2005. Ness holds the single-season track record of 79 victories, set three years ago.

Ness tied for the top spot twice: with O’Connell in 2009-2010 and with Bennett in 2010-2011. O’Connell also won the 1998-1999 crown. She leads the track’s earnings list with more than $647,000.

Since Feb. 27, Ness has won with 28 of 68 starters, a staggering 41.2-percent strike rate. His overall record shows the 46 victories, 22 seconds and 18 thirds from 147 starters.

“At Tampa, it is usually toward the middle of the meeting when we get going, after we claim a few horses and run them back,” said Ness, who has left his wife Mandy in charge here while he operates in the mid-Atlantic region.

His most productive claim of the Tampa Bay Downs meeting was Brother Pat, a 6-year-old gelding who leads the meeting with five victories. The first came on Nov. 29 on the turf, when Ness claimed the son of Any Given Saturday out of a Tiznow mare for $16,000.

Brother Pat’s next start came on Jan. 7, a turf allowance in which he was eligible to be claimed for $32,000. Brother Pat finished a determined third, at which point Ness decided to remove the for-sale sign and focus on the track’s Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series, consisting of four races at progressively longer distances.

Brother Pat won all four races (the last two were moved to the dirt because of rain) and, amazingly, never trailed at any point of call in any of the races.

 As one door closes, another opens. Ness currently is second in the standings at Pimlico with 10 victories. He also plans to run smaller strings at Monmouth in New Jersey and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania when those meets open soon, before returning to Laurel in Maryland in the fall.

The Odessa, Fla., resident, who led all trainers in North America in 2012 with 395 victories, has 2,248 career triumphs and 71 this year, currently fifth across the continent. Clearly, he is an energetic, motivated individual with a chance at his current pace to post some remarkable numbers.

But Ness has placed more of an emphasis on family than records in recent years, especially since the birth of his daughters, 2 ½-year-old Hannah and Emma, 10 months. He started 768 horses last year, his lowest total since 2008, and is on pace for about the same figure this year.

In recent years, Ness had trained exclusively for the Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., operation of Rich and Karen Papiese. This season, while the majority of his starters have been Midwest horses, he has also trained for his own Jagger, Inc., operation; Arindel; and a handful of others owners.

The overall business strategy may change, but Ness has the same single-minded approach to winning races that involves attention to detail, extensive race-watching and a dedication to each horse’s welfare.

“It’s hard to get on top, but it’s even harder to stay there,” said Ness, who imparts his insight to the track’s two-time leading jockey, Antonio Gallardo, who is 36-for-98 with Ness this meeting. “Antonio has a great desire to win and he’s hungry, but he has to remember there is another kid coming up the road somewhere who wants to be where he’s at.

“Things just aren’t going to fall in place. You have to work for it.”

Bennett will race this summer primarily at Monmouth and Presque Isle. O’Connell will be based at Monmouth and Gulfstream Park West in south Florida.

Odds and ends. Luis Figueroa took a major step toward winning the track’s Top Apprentice Jockey title by winning three races. Figueroa won the first race on Approval, a 4-year-old filly owned by William Rivera and trained by Victor Carrasco, Jr. The 19-year-old added the fifth on the turf on Zen Imperialism, a 6-year-old gelding owned by John G. Allen and trained by Nancy S. Harris.

Figueroa won again in the seventh race on the turf for Rivera and Carrasco on their 4-year-old filly Jamaica Bay. Figueroa has 17 victories, five more than apprentice Janelle Campbell.

Gallardo rode two winners to complete his season with a track-record 147 victories. He won the sixth race on 9-year-old horse Ducduc for owner Lady Luck Stable and trainer Christos Gatis and the eighth on 3-year-old filly Wonderfuladventure for owner V.A. Racing Stables and trainer Efren Loza, Jr.

After the sixth, Gallardo received his Leading Jockey trophy in the winner’s circle from track Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn, with his wife Polliana, their two children, other family members and friends and Gallardo’s agent, Mike Moran, joining in the ceremony.

Daniel Centeno rode two winners today to finish second to Gallardo in the Top Jockey standings with 90 victories. Centeno won the second race on 4-year-old colt Heisagentleman for owner Eduardo Azpurua, Sr., and trainer Leo Azpurua, Jr. Heisagentleman was claimed by his new owner-trainer, Carlos A. Cepeda.

The five-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion added the fourth race on 5-year-old gelding Twocubanbrothersu for owner Juan Cacho Castro and trainer Gerald Bennett. Twocubanbrothersu was claimed from the race by new trainer John Rigattieri for himself and co-owner Steven Deraney.

The Top Owner race could be decided on June 30, which as mentioned above is the final day of the 2014-2015 meeting as well as the first day of the third annual, two-day Summer Festival of Racing.

Midwest Thoroughbreds, which has won the title five consecutive years, has a 23-22 lead from Dennis Amaty’s Amaty Racing Stables, which is likely to be represented here on June 30.

Today’s ninth race, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, produced some huge payoffs as the two longest shots in the race, Weekend Appeal and Biddabudda, finished 1-2. Weekend Appeal, who paid $51.80 to win, is a 5-year-old mare owned by Celeste Stevens and trained by Zollie Durr. Apprentice jockey Brandon Boulanger was the rider.

Biddabudda was 43-1, and the $2 exacta combination of 1-6 paid $1,191. The $1 trifecta combination of 1-6-8, with Daisy a Day third, paid $4,523.50. The $1 superfecta combination of 1-6-8-4, with Miss Amalita fourth, paid $27,368.80.

The Durr-Boulanger combination wasn’t done, completing the late 1-9 daily double in the 10th and final race on the turf when 4-year-old filly Sweet Morgan came flying late to capture the decision. Sweet Morgan is owned by Robert A. Baker. The $2 daily double paid $400.80.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day 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.