ANTICIPATION GROWS FOR OPENING DAY; NESS, GALLARDO TO DEFEND TITLES

by Mike Henry

The laid-back atmosphere on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch Friday morning belied the rising excitement for the Opening Day program on Saturday, Nov. 28 that launches the track’s 2015-2016 season.

“There is always a lot of optimism at the beginning of any meeting, and you can feel the camaraderie with everyone getting their horses ready,” said Thoroughbred trainer Bernell Rhone, who has been coming to Tampa Bay Downs since 1999 and was tied for fourth-leading trainer at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., this summer with 27 winners. “Everything seems to be positive. They’ve got good handle (wagering), large fields and good surfaces.

“The horses always feel good when they get to a new place, and you hope they will improve. But the competition here is tough. Everyone brings their better horses here from all over, and when you’re running your $20,000 horse against everyone else’s $20,000 horse, somebody has to run last,” Rhone said. “But you like to see how your horses compare with those from other tracks.”

Horses have arrived the past couple of weeks from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, the Chicago area, Minnesota, Ohio, Canada and even 90 minutes up the road in Ocala, Fla., to compete during the 91-day meeting, which extends through June 30. For record-keeping purposes, the meeting officially began July 1, but the next five-plus months will determine which stables, trainers, jockeys and horses depart next May with bragging rights.

Post time for the first race on Nov. 28 is 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs will conduct racing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays for three weeks before adding Sundays to the mix on Dec. 20. The track is closed on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.

For the second consecutive season, Tampa Bay Downs is teaming with Race Track Warriors to present the “10 Days of Festivus” online handicapping contest, offering a $1,000 grand prize to the winner. The deadline to register is 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 4, the first day of the contest. Individuals wishing to participate can go to www.festivuschallenge.com to register and for a full description of the rules.

The most familiar face returning to the Oldsmar barn area is that of trainer Jamie Ness, a resident of nearby Odessa, Fla., who has won nine consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training titles (twice tying for the top spot). Ness has saddled 2,390 winners – and counting – in his career, and successfully took his show on the road upon the conclusion of last season, winning training titles at Pimlico, Delaware and Meadowlands. He holds the single-season Oldsmar mark with 79 victories during the 2011-2012 campaign and led all trainers in North America three years ago with 395 winners.

His toughest competition for a 10th consecutive crown is likely to come from last season’s second and third-place finishers, past Oldsmar champions Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell. Bennett led the standings for most of last season and saddled 43 winners, three behind the Ness total, while O’Connell sent out 39 winners and was the track leader in total purse earnings with $648,271. She is the trainer of 3-year-old filly Lady Shipman, who finished second in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint last month at Keeneland.

Other top returning conditioners include Arnaud Delacour, trainer of Xpressbet.com Preakness third-place finisher Divining Rod; Tom Proctor, whose stable includes Grade I-winning 3-year-old filly Include Betty; Sandino R. Hernandez, Jr.; Jason DaCosta; Chad Stewart; Dennis Ward; Eoin Harty; Ian Wilkes; Dale Bennett; Joe Woodard; Aldana Gonzalez; Joan Scott; Rhone; and William “Buff” Bradley.

Approaching Opening Day, Antonio Gallardo reigns supreme among Tampa Bay Downs jockeys, having set a track record last season by riding 147 winners. The 28-year-old Spaniard, who calls Tampa home, has won back-to-back riding titles at both Tampa Bay Downs and Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., where he also holds the single-season mark. At the start of today, Gallardo had ridden 286 winners in 2015, second in North America to Javier Castellano’s total of 303.

Gallardo’s main competition this season should come from five-time track champion Daniel Centeno and Fernando De La Cruz, who finished second in the Indiana Grand standings this year. Other notable returning riders include four-time track champion Ronnie Allen, Jr.; Victor Lebron; Dean Butler; Ademar Santos; Pablo Morales; Scott Spieth; Jose Ferrer; Brian Pedroza; Erick Rodriguez; Ricardo Feliciano; Huber Villa-Gomez; and last season’s two top apprentice riders, Luis Figueroa and Janelle Campbell.

Newcomers expected to make an impact include Albin Jimenez, the leading rider at Indiana Grand, and Christian Santiago Reyes, who won an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top apprentice jockey in 2009 and captured the Grade I Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap in 2010 aboard Acclamation.

Rosemary Homeister, Jr., a perennial fan favorite among Tampa Bay Downs regulars, has taken a leave of absence from riding to work from Hoffman Estates, Ill., as a personal fitness trainer and nutritional consultant.

Fans can expect a spirited competition for top owner honors. Last year’s race saw Dennis Amaty’s Amaty Racing Stables forge a tie on the final day of the meeting with Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., Rich and Karen Papiese’s ownership entity that has won six consecutive Tampa Bay Downs owner crowns. Each won 23 races.

Returning patrons will immediately notice an infield tote board that has been painted black to improve visibility and hopefully proclaim their skills at handicapping when results are posted. The addition of a Super High-5 wager, with a carryover jackpot from race to race when it is not hit, will provide bettors with additional opportunities for striking it rich.

The all-you-can-eat “Buffet Breakfast at the Downs” will be held from 8-10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5 in the Trackside Picnic Pavilion, adjacent to the paddock. The cost is $8, which includes a hot, country-style meal with eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, toast, hash browns, pastries and juices. Included in the cost is free Grandstand admission, a Tampa Bay Downs program and a free copy of the newest edition of author/handicapper Peter Mallett’s book, Betting Tampa Bay Downs 2015-2016: An Up-To-Date Guide For Bettors Handicapping the Oldsmar Oval. Fans can also expect to meet leading trainers and jockeys.

Mirroring a trend that has proven tremendously successful at various tracks, Tampa Bay Downs has unveiled a new-look stakes schedule featuring multiple stakes races on six Saturdays throughout the meeting. The centerpiece of the stakes program is the 36th annual Festival Day card on March 12, highlighted by the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which is a Triple Crown stepping stone for 3-year-olds and part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby points series.

A track-record $800,000 in stakes purses will be available on Festival Day, which includes the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf course; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares, also on the turf; and the $100,000 Challenger Stakes.

The stakes schedule begins on Saturday, Dec. 19 with Cotillion Festival Day, a racing card consisting mainly of 2-year-old horses, all of which turn 3 on Jan. 1, the shared birthday of all Northern Hemisphere Thoroughbreds. The Cotillion Festival Day program will include the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes for juvenile colts and geldings and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for juvenile fillies, each at a distance of six furlongs. Also scheduled that afternoon is the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes, showcasing the track’s lush turf course, with fillies and mares asked to sprint the five-furlong distance.

The track’s Kids and Family Days return to the Trackside Picnic Pavilion area on Sunday, Feb. 14, with subsequent Sunday events on Feb. 28, March 6 and March 20. Track mascot Mouse the Miniature Horse will appear, weather permitting, and games, pony rides and bounce houses will add to the country-fair atmosphere.