by Mike Henry

Tampa Bay Downs rings out 2016 with a handicapper’s delight: the 13th edition of the $100,000 Turf Dash Stakes for horses 3-years-old-and-upward going five furlongs on the lawn. A field of 12 is expected to start.

The Turf Dash is the ninth race on a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The top two finishers from last season’s renewal, 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Fast Flying Rumor and 6-year-old gelding Power Alert, should be among the betting favorites.

Since Tampa Bay Downs increased the purse to six figures three seasons ago, the Turf Dash has produced the three fastest times in race history. In March of 2014, then-5-year-old gelding Ancil won the event in course-record time of 54.88 seconds, earning an invitation to compete in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot in Berkshire, England.

The following year, 5-year-old Bold Thunder dominated the competition while lowering the course record to 54.63 seconds. While last season’s Turf Dash winner, Fast Flying Rumor, failed to go “lower” (his time was 55.06 seconds), his Beyer Speed Figure of 108 is the highest in Tampa Bay Downs history.

The Beyer Speed Figures, which first appeared in print in 1991, were devised by racing journalist and handicapper Andy Beyer and are a numerical representation of a horse’s performance, based on final time and the inherent speed over the track on which the race was run.

Fast Flying Rumor’s 108 figure withstood a challenge from the reigning Eclipse Award-winning Turf Female, Tepin, who achieved a 107 while winning the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes here on March 12 in course-record time of 1:46.26 for a mile-and-an-eighth.

Fast Flying Rumor’s conditioner, leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett, has renewed optimism for a repeat after watching him breeze three furlongs in 36 1/5 seconds last Saturday. “The way he blew out, I think he’ll be back to that race” (last season’s Turf Dash), Bennett said.

The depth of competition will make winning difficult, even if Fast Flying Rumor and jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., can repeat. Power Alert, who will be ridden by Albin Jimenez, has shown no signs of tailing off, although he has not won in his last six starts.

Bennett has plenty of ammunition to take on Power Alert and other challengers such as Claiming Crown Canterbury Stakes winner Super Spender and Summation Time, a Grade II-placed 5-year-old fro the barn of Christophe Clement. Bennett trains Florida-bred 3-year-old gelding Bill’s Passion, who has finished first or second in 10 of 12 lifetime starts and won the Turf Dash Prep on Dec. 7.

Bennett is also co-owner with his wife, Mary Bennett, of 4-year-old One Lucky Step, a homebred owned by the couple under their Winning Stables banner. Trained by Mary, One Lucky Step finished second in the Turf Dash Prep in his first start since undergoing throat surgery.

Daniel Centeno, who has won the Turf Dash five times, will ride Bill’s Passion. Edwin Gonzalez rides One Lucky Step.

One horse Gerald Bennett won’t overlook is 3-year-old gelding Incensed, trained by his son, Dale Bennett. Incensed is 3-for-6 going five furlongs on the turf, with three seconds.

Around the oval. Track announcer Richard Grunder welcomes trainer Jane Cibelli to Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday during the “Morning Glory Club” show, which begins at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand. Admission is free and spectators get to enjoy complimentary coffee and donuts, as well as free admission to the day’s races.

Cibelli is the conditioner and part owner of Super Spender, a 4-year-old gelding who will break from the No. 1 post under jockey Nik Juarez in the Turf Dash.

Leading jockey Daniel Centeno rode two winners on today’s card. In the sixth race, Centeno was aboard 3-year-old filly Shea’s Cool for owners Tim Collins and N.H. Stone and trainer Forrest Kaelin. The rider added the seventh on the turf on Musical America, a well-bred 2-year-old colt owned by the Lael Stables of his breeders, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and trained by Arnaud Delacour.

Pablo Morales also rode two winners. He captured the third race on Cabildo, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Michael Laurato and trained by Paul Marino. Morales added the ninth on the turf on Left Foot Slewie, an 8-year-old gelding owned by Big Shot Stable and trained by Leon J. McKanas. Left Foot Slewie paid $58.20 to win.

Many Tampa Bay Downs fans recall McKanas as a contestant on the TV reality show Survivor: Cagayan three years ago.

Jazzysdudeaintrude won the fourth race and paid $191.40 to win, the biggest payoff of the meeting, in what probably was his last race. Augusto Marin rode the 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding for owner-trainer M.C. Reardon, who recently sold the winner to owners who intend to transition him to a show-jumping career.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through April, with three Thursday cards scheduled Feb. 9, 16 and 23. The track is closed on Easter Sunday, April 16.

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