by Mike Henry

Dropping his 4-year-old gelding Bennie Y Benny to the $5,000 claiming level represented a calculated risk for owner Dennis Amaty, but it was his only chance to catch perennial champion Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., in the Tampa Bay Downs Leading Owner race on the final day of the 2014-2015 meeting.

The 4-year-old gelding made the decision pay off, posting a 1 ¾-length victory under veteran jockey Eddie Martin, Jr., in the seventh race today on the opening day of the track’s third annual, two-day Summer Festival of Racing. Red Rocket Express finished second.

More good news for Amaty: No one claimed the Florida-bred Bennie Y Benny, a three-time winner at the meeting.

The Summer Festival of Racing concludes Wednesday with an eight-race card beginning at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday’s action also marks the first day of the 90th anniversary 2015-2016 Oldsmar meeting, set to then resume on Saturday, Nov. 28.

Amaty Racing Stables and Midwest Thoroughbreds, which did not send horses to the Summer Festival of Racing, finish with 23 victories apiece. The Midwest operation of Dyer, Ind., residents Rich and Karen Papiese has won or shared six consecutive Tampa Bay Downs Leading Owner titles.

Also today, jockey Ademar Santos took a giant leap toward successfully defending his 2014 Summer Festival Jockeys’ Challenge title by riding three winners, all on the turf, including 21-1 shot Lil’ Miss Tweety in the eighth race. Santos also had a second and three thirds from seven mounts.

Entering Wednesday, Santos has 49 points, followed by Pedro Monterrey, Jr., with 25 and Martin and Rosemary Homeister, Jr., each with 23. Homeister came off her first three mounts because of travel delays.

Amaty caught Midwest on the final day despite starting only 65 horses, 19 fewer than Midwest. Amaty credited trainer Sandino R. Hernandez, Jr., who is currently stabled at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, for making the title possible.

“Sandy has done an unbelievable job, and he is the one who really deserves it,” said Amaty, a native of Elmont, N.Y. “He did a phenomenal job, and I’m just really happy to accomplish this with a 15-horse stable.”

Jose L. Alvarez had been named to ride Bennie Y Benny, but he elected to stay at Gulfstream. “I called (jockey agent) Lisa Ciardullo, who is a friend of mine, and she got (Martin) to ride the horse,” Amaty said. “He got it done for me. I have no complaint there.”

How many owners have said the same thing about Martin over the years? Well, his career mark of 3,700-plus victories includes a slew of graded stakes aboard the likes of Brushed Halory, Rochester, Balto Star, Storm Mesa and Hero of Order.

Veteran trainer Monte Thomas spoke for the majority of horsemen and jockeys participating in the Oldsmar oval’s Summer Festival of Racing after his 4-year-old filly Moonlite Matinee rolled to a three-length victory from In a Momentsnotice in the third race, a 5-furlong maiden claiming event on the turf.

“The winner’s circle is the place to be, and the (third annual Summer Festival) is the place to be, too,” said Thomas, who won with both of his starters on today’s card. “Both my horses really ran nice races. There are some horses that aren’t quite making it at Gulfstream (in south Florida), and some of these races might be an easier spot, or they can give you a chance to get something figured out and educate your horse.”

Thomas credited the Tampa Bay Downs maintenance staff with presenting both the main dirt track and turf course in excellent condition after an eight-week hiatus. “I never have any worries here about the track condition,” he said. “The turf was a little bit dry because there hasn’t been much rain, but the times were pretty good so it must be good.”

Thomas, who owns Moonlite Matinee under his Up and Downs Racing banner, also captured the first race with his 3-year-old filly Dove in Flight, who is a full sister to his 4-year-old stakes-winning filly My Sweet Dove (both by Hello Broadway, out of Royal Dove).

Carson Sullivan rode Dove in Flight, while Santos was aboard Moonlite Matinee. Santos was in the zone most of the day. He won the fifth race on 8-year-old gelding Nun Tonight, breaking her habit of non-winning races in her eighth career start for owner Ricardo Baltazar Ascencio and trainer Margaret Wetherington.

Santos brought 6-year-old mare Lil’ Miss Tweety from off the pace to win the eighth for owners Lisa Carrano and Jorge Candelario and trainer Robert Boileau. She paid $45 to win.

The first-place finisher in the $5,000 Jockeys’ Challenge earns a $2,500 bonus. The second-place jockey takes home $1,500 and third collects $1,000.

The 2014-2015 meeting leaders were made official after today’s eighth and final race. While Amaty was on hand to celebrate, it is worth noting that few owners anywhere have experienced the recent success of the Papieses and Midwest, which has finished atop the North American owner list in victories five consecutive years, setting an all-time record with 542 victories in 2012.

Midwest leads this year’s competition, with 105 victories going into Tuesday’s action.

Midwest set a Tampa Bay Downs track record with 79 victories during the 2011-2012 meeting. An Eclipse Award finalist the last four years, the outfit won the 2014 Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint with then-5-year-old gelding Work All Week.

Antonio Gallardo, the 27-year-old Spaniard who entered today fourth in North America with 151 victories in 2015, won his second consecutive Tampa Bay Downs Leading Jockey title with a single-season, track-record mark of 147 winners. The former mark of 144 was set by five-time Oldsmar riding champion Daniel Centeno during the 2007-2008 meeting.

Gallardo also led Oldsmar’s riding colony with total purse earnings of $2,052,973. He currently is based at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he leads the standings.

Trainer Jamie Ness, who began today tied for fourth in North America with 113 victories in 2015, captured his ninth consecutive Leading Trainer honor by saddling 46 winners, three more than Gerald Bennett.

Ness – who shared the track’s 2010-2011 crown with Bennett and the 2009-2010 title with Kathleen O’Connell – broke a tie with the late Don Rice for the most Leading Trainer awards in the 89-year history of Tampa Bay Downs. Rice’s eight titles occurred over an 11-season span, from 1994-1995 to 2004-2005.

The 40-year-old Ness, a resident of nearby Odessa, Fla., who trains for Midwest Thoroughbreds and other owners, is currently among the leading trainers at Presque Isle Downs, Monmouth Park and Delaware Park.

O’Connell, who finished third in the season standings with 39 victories, led all conditioners in purse earnings with $648,271.

Luis Figueroa won the Leading Apprentice Jockey crown with 17 victories, five more than Janelle Campbell. Figueroa, who has since lost his apprentice allowance, is based at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.

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.