ELDER BENNETT ZERILLO’S TRAINER OF MONTH; GALLARDO TOUGH TO BEAT

by Mike Henry

Gerald Bennett thrives on the challenge of arriving at his barn each morning and figuring what each horse needs to move forward. “That’s why some people who retire don’t live too long – they aren’t talking to people and stimulating their minds,” he said.

Each of his 40 horses recognizes his voice in the pre-dawn stillness, and he visits each stall before training starts. The 71-year-old conditioner maps out their schedules as far as two months in advance, while staying alert to any changes in their demeanors, eating habits and their way of going.

“There is no way I can get him to cut down,” said his wife, Mary. “I say ‘Let’s cut down a little,’ but he keeps getting more and more (horses).”

With a stable of 40 Thoroughbreds, Bennett can’t do it all on his own. He runs one of the smoothest operations on the Oldsmar backside, with eight grooms, six hotwalkers and four exercise people. Some employees, such as assistant Carlos Cacho and members of his family, have worked for Bennett for more than 20 years.

“With a stable this size, there are so many things you have to pick up on, you need 10 sets of eyes,” Mary said. “You cannot do it alone. This is people getting along together.”

But the buck stops on Bennett’s desk, and that’s the way he likes it. As horses are walked around the shedrow while others are being tacked up for their morning work, Bennett keeps his pulse on the full swirl of activity.

With a meeting-high nine victories, the Bennett machine is humming. He has been honored as the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month, following his son Dale Bennett’s recent honor.

“It’s just like in an automotive factory or on an assembly line,” the elder Bennett said recently. “You have to take them out and assess them, do the charts and know which ones are working and with who. They have to be happy to perform their best.”

If Bennett’s horses almost seem like part of the family, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Several possess bloodlines that have been in the Bennett barn for years, such as 5-year-old gelding One Buck Roma and 3-year-old gelding One Lucky Step, both sons of the mare One Buck Coyote.

One Lucky Step broke his maiden here Dec. 16, setting a blazing-hot pace and lasting by a head to win in 1:03.47 for five-and-a-half furlongs. “He was the last one out of the mare, and he is my heart and soul,” Mary said of their homebred by Two Step Salsa.

One Lucky Step and One Buck Roma are half-brothers to the broodmare Bucky’s Prayer, a Bennett homebred that won three stakes, including the 2006-2007 Lightning City at Tampa Bay Downs. Bucky’s Prayer, in turn, produced Zofia’s Prayer, an unraced Bennett 2-year-old filly who was the first-born foal of the 2010 Eclipse Award Champion Sprinter, Big Drama.

Bennett has unveiled other quality runners early in the meeting, such as Turf Dash Prep winner Fast Flying Rumor, a 3-year-old gelding owned in partnership by Mary’s Winning Stables and Midnight Rider, LLC, and This Boy’s Sharp, a 3-year-old colt bred and owned by W. Kenan Rand, Jr.

Thoroughbreds are athletes, and some of Bennett’s have had their issues. Fast Flying Rumor was idle for more than three months with a case of the thumps – spasms of the diaphragm that are caused by dehydration and low levels of electrolytes – before his turnaround on Dec. 11 at odds of 13-1. This Boy’s Sharp fractured a cannon bone at Monmouth Park in May and underwent surgery, spending seven months on the sidelines.

“You have to have good communication with your owners, so they’ll let you run their horses at whatever their correct level is,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s best horse was Beau Genius, who won both the Grade I Philip H. Iselin Handicap and Grade II Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap in the summer of 1990. Other top performers over the years include Secret Romeo, a multiple-stakes winner who earned almost $900,000; the aforementioned Bucky’s Prayer; and Down From Heaven, a mare which won nine consecutive races in 1986 at the old Detroit Race Course.

Bennett’s career victory total of 3,537 since 1976 is 19th all-time and 11th among active trainers.

Down the stretch. Antonio Gallardo might not catch Javier Castellano in the 2015 North American victory chase, but he is making it difficult for any of his local rivals to have ambitions of dethroning him from atop the Tampa Bay Downs standings. Gallardo rode four winners today for the fourth time during the meeting, giving him 25 through 13 days, 16 more than runner-up Daniel Centeno. Gallardo won the second race on first-time starter One More Shot, a 2-year-old colt owned by Niall J. Brennan and trained by Jamie Ness. He went back-to-back in the third race on the turf on 4-year-old filly Silver Liner for breeder-owner Team Block and trainer Chris M. Block.

Gallardo then won the sixth and seventh races, first scoring on 5-year-old gelding Divine Ambition for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trainer Joe Woodard. Gallardo and 6-year-old mare Golden Rule rallied from off the pace to capture the seventh for owner Jagger, Inc., and trainer Ness. Gallardo has 312 victories in 2015, 23 behind Castellano.

Golden Rule was claimed from the race by owner-trainer Kathleen O’Connell.

Veteran jockey Scott Spieth rode a pair of long-shot winners today. In the fourth race, Spieth scored on 6-year-old mare The Real McCoy for breeder-owner Ripplewood Farm and trainer Tim Richardson. Spieth and 4-year-old filly Lightness lit up the board in the ninth, paying $104.20 to win. Aldana Gonzalez trains Florida-bred Lightness for breeder-owner Bruno Schickedanz.

Fernando De La Cruz also rode two winners, notching the first and 10th races. He opened by winning on 4-year-old filly Strollingintherain for owner-trainer Jason DaCosta and finished with a victory aboard 2-year-old filly Silver Magnolia for owner Evergreen Stables and trainer Jordan Blair.

Angel Serpa, who last rode at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2013-2014 meeting, won his first race back at the Oldsmar oval today, guiding 5-year-old gelding Haywired to a triumph in the fifth race for the Hayses and trainer Woodard. Serpa is trying to rejuvenate his career after struggling in the mid-Atlantic region. Mike Moran is his agent.

Thoroughbred racing returns to Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:28 p.m. Each patron will receive a 2016 Tampa Bay Downs calendar with paid admission, while supplies last. Saturday also marks the start of track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club, which begins at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand. His guest Saturday is trainer Keith Nations.

Attendees receive free donuts, coffee and Grandstand passes.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.