A day after Always Dreaming became the third horse to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands after competing at Tampa Bay Downs, the Oldsmar oval awarded its leading jockey, trainer and owner with handsome trophies between races.
While the 2016-2017 meeting does not officially end until June 30 (the first day of the track’s annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing and Music), each category leader has built enough of an advantage to clinch their title.
All three are familiar faces to Tampa Bay Downs fans, although the leading owner is a first-time winner. Here is a look at the champs as they prepare to depart Oldsmar until the fall.
LEADING JOCKEY: DANIEL CENTENO
The 45-year-old Centeno isn’t sure if a five-day suspension for careless riding on March 31 got him fired up, or if a challenge from Tampa Bay Downs newcomer Edwin Gonzalez stoked his competitive juices.
Of course, it’s not as if the six-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion needs extra incentive to chase victory. But it is fun to speculate if Centeno had more motivation than usual upon his return to the saddle on April 8.
No matter the reasons, Centeno dashed the up-and-coming Gonzalez’s hopes by riding 25 winners over the course of 12 racing days, capping his masterful run by winning four races on April 29 to reach 100 for the meeting.
Centeno finished the meeting with 102 victories, 17 more than Gonzalez. With his sixth Oldsmar crown, he ties Mike Manganello for the most titles in track history. Manganello won the 1970 Kentucky Derby aboard Dust Commander.
“It (his suspension, which consisted of only two racing days) was a normal week for me. I took care of my daughter (8-year-old Jazmyn) and took her to school and came out to the track a couple of mornings to work horses, but I really didn’t do anything different,” Centeno said.
“I think maybe I needed a little break and I came back fresh, but (suspensions) are part of the business. When I came back I didn’t think about what Edwin was doing because I didn’t want to put pressure on myself.
“I didn’t expect to get on fire like that, because after the Florida Cup (on April 2) a lot of horses started leaving. But every horse that I was riding was running,” he added, smiling.
Centeno, who won more than 800 races in his homeland of Venezuela before coming to the United States, has been the jockey to beat at Tampa Bay Downs almost every season since 2006-2007, when he won his first title since 125 victories. That began a four-year reign during which he averaged 1.48 winners per performance. He established the track wins record in 2007-2008 with 144 victories.
After winning his fifth title in 2012-2013, Centeno was overtaken by Antonio Gallardo, who won the next three titles and broke Centeno’s single-season mark by riding 147 winners in 2014-2015. Centeno was the first to congratulate Gallardo after No. 145.
“I’m glad for the success he’s had, because I gave him a lot of advice and he really listened to me,” Centeno said of the 29-year-old Spaniard. “He listened and he learned, and you can see the difference now. He went to New York and did pretty well, and that made me feel good. He’s a good rider and a good friend, and I’m excited for him.”
Centeno won this year’s Turf Dash Stakes on Power Alert and the Wayward Lass Stakes on No Fault of Mine. He has won the Tampa Bay Derby twice: on Musket Man in 2009 and Ring Weekend in 2014.
Tampa is his home now, and Centeno has become more comfortable the past couple of years interacting with fans and sharing his enjoyment of his profession.
“I’m grateful to be leading rider again at Tampa Bay Downs,” he said. “I love Tampa, I love this racetrack and I love the weather. I’m comfortable here, the crowds are good and we have good meets every year, so I enjoy being here.”
LEADING TRAINER: GERALD BENNETT
Any descriptions of Gerald Bennett as “the lion in winter” can be put on hold. He’s still eager to devour the competition, but the 73-year-old conditioner’s Ponce de Leon-ish quest for a Fountain of Youth has ended at the Oldsmar oval.
“That’s the place to be – winning races,” Bennett, who saddled 50 winners for his second consecutive Oldsmar title and third overall, said with a gleam in his eye. “Clients want to be with trainers who are winning a lot, and it keeps you younger.”
It’s hard to imagine many folks his age having as much energy as Bennett, who hauls most of his horses from track to track when one season ends and a new one begins. Bennett may be as close to a “horse whisperer” as any trainer on the Oldsmar backside, certain each of his dozens of charges respond to him by sight and voice.
“Being a trainer is hard work. You have to have a lot of drive and energy to keep wanting to get up every morning and fight to be on top,” said Bennett, who receives tremendous support from his wife Mary and his stable crew. “It can be a hard grind, and you need owners who will support you by letting you run the horses where they belong, where they can win.
“It’s important to keep doing your homework and not to waste a lot of time,” he added. “You have to keep a sharp eye on all your horses, because one little thing you miss can cost you a major setback.”
Bennett hasn’t had many of those this meeting. The native of Springhill, Nova Scotia, who has trained Thoroughbred for more than 40 years (he had previously trained Standardbreds in Canada), gave almost immediate notice of his intentions this season by sending out four winners from four starters on Dec. 7, tying a track record he had previously accomplished in March of 2016.
Bennett saddled the winners of four stakes races this season, with three of those victories provided by his outstanding 3-year-old filly R Angel Katelyn, who won the Sandpiper Stakes while still 2, the Gasparilla Stakes and the Florida Cup Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies.
R Angel Katelyn is owned by Bennett’s major client, Rich Averill (Averill Racing) in partnership with CCF Racing Stable and K Lauren Racing.
Bennett has 3,657 career victories, which is 17th all-time among North American trainers and 11th among active trainers. His best horse was Beau Genius, which he trained to 13 stakes victories, including the Grade I Philip H. Iselin in 1990.
The father of trainer Dale Bennett thrives on the friendly, laid-back atmosphere at Tampa Bay Downs, where he is often approached by horseplayers of all ages and descriptions for his insights. “The fans here are very involved, and most of the ones I meet are very good handicappers,” he said.
“I just thank the good Lord we are able to keep our stable going as strong as we have, and I’m thankful to all the people who support us and give us their energy to win with their hootin’ and hollerin.’ ”
LEADING OWNER: RIDENJAC RACING (DENNIS WARD)
When you’ve been around as long as Dennis Ward, it can sometimes seem like nothing is new under the sun. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the Leading Owner title by his Ridenjac Racing outfit isn’t his first.
He proudly displays a belt buckle recognizing him as leading owner at Zia Park in New Mexico in 2005, the track’s first season. “I have four or five leading owner buckles,” said Ward, who also won several training titles at Yakima Meadows in Washington and at the California Rodeo in Salinas.
Ridenjac (named after Ward’s grandchildren Riley, Denae and Jack) gained momentum throughout the 2016-2017 meeting, finishing with 22 victories. He also finished third in the trainer standings behind Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell with 32 victories.
The 70-year-old conditioner enjoyed outstanding success with horses he claimed during the meeting. Ridenjac made 20 starts with horses it claimed, posting seven victories and four seconds from those races.
“I just like claiming horses,” said Ward, whose sharp eye for a runner has been honed since his days as a successful jockey in the 1960s. “I’ll claim a horse off my mother if I want a horse. Friends are friends and business is business, and if you want to claim one off me, I’ll still be friends with you.”
Like Bennett, Ward possesses a seemingly unquenchable energy. In addition to his training duties, he also ponies horses during the racing day and can be found on horseback just about every morning, galloping horses while astride his 8-year-old horse Smart and True, who also happens to have won four consecutive races.
Ward, who is ably assisted by his partner, Jeanne Shand, will be heading to Gulfstream Park after the current meeting. He’ll miss Tampa Bay Downs, where he has steadily built his stable to its current level the last five seasons.
“There probably is not a racetrack in the country that is better-taken care of, both the main track and the turf course,” he said. “Plus the way it is built, the water goes off both sides, so you never have a muddy racetrack.
“If anybody wants to take a look at how to build a racetrack, they should take a look at this one.”
The father of ultra-successful trainer (and 1984 Eclipse Award-winning Outstanding Apprentice Jockey) Wesley Ward has trained 970 career winners. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the title is that he also finished in the top spot among the track’s owners in purse money won, simply because he did it with mostly claiming horses.
“Being your own boss and having good people around you is what this is all about. I don’t even consider it work,” said Ward, who is at his barn by 5:30 every morning.
LEADING HORSE: PACIFIC IMAGE
Call the 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding Pacific Image “Mr. Popularity.” The son of Mr. Sekiguchi-Dixie Image, by Halo’s Image, won five consecutive races during the meeting after finishing third in his first local start, and he did so despite being claimed on three separate occasions.
Pacific Image finished with one more victory than Minaret Stakes winner Spanish Concert; Pink Mama; Inaswagger; Limehousegas; Sheza Ruler; and Smart and True.
Pacific Image won for three different sets of connections. He made his first two starts of the meeting for Happy Tenth Stable and trainer Tony Wilson, getting claimed from his first victory of the meeting on Dec. 17 for $5,000 by owner-trainer Justin Johns.
Johns won three consecutive races with Pacific Image before losing him for $8,000 to trainer Dale Bennett and Big E Stables for $10,000 on March 12. Bennett entered the sprinter for a $16,000 claiming tag on March 25, when he won in a speedy 1:09.83 for six furlongs – and was claimed by trainer Gary L. Johnson for new owner Michael Weiss.
Around the oval.Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes June 30, which is the official final day of the 2016-2017 meeting and the first day of the two-day Summer Festival of Racing and Music. The track 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.