03/13/2004 12:00AM

Buccina consistently staying near top of local claiming game

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - The economics of owning and keeping a Thoroughbred racehorse these days are staggering. In recent years, the costs associated with the care of a horse - feed, tack, vet bills, etc. - have skyrocketed, running many owners out of the business.

But for those who race at Tampa Bay Downs, a steady upturn in business the past several seasons has produced an upswing in the size of purses. The days of $2,300 purses for bottom-level claiming horses are gone. Now, a $10,000 Florida-bred claiming horse can earn 60 percent of $8,100 in a race, plus $1,000 for being a statebred - a total of about $5,800. This means a $10,000 claim who wins two races at that level can recoup his claim price.

It's still not a hobby for the faint of heart. But for some, like Mike Buccina, Tampa Bay Downs is a good place to own and claim horses.

"I really like running horses here," Buccina said. "It's a great venue. There are so many ship-ins and big fields, and it's a good place to race.

"The money's getting better every year," he added, "and while nobody should get in this business as an owner thinking about making a profit, you can stay in the ballgame if you do your homework, make a good claim or two, and, of course, get lucky."

Whether it's luck or, as the late Branch Rickey once said, "the residue of design," Buccina has ranked in the top 10 in earnings here for several years and was in the top five last season. This season - after starting the meeting with, as he puts it, "some stock we didn't like" - Buccina and six-time leading Tampa trainer Don Rice have gone to work. They claimed Cued Up and Dry Ice, and both have won since coming under the Rice shed row. But Buccina is proudest of Single File, a horse who was claimed for $7,500 and recently won a midlevel allowance race.

"We've made some bad claims, too, but to take one for $7,500 and win an allowance race, that's going some," Buccina said. "Don is toning down his operation, but he's still one of the sharpest horsemen I've been around, and I've owned horses since 1975. We've won four here and two more in Kentucky, so we're doing okay."

Jellison sidelined after spill

Jockey Jill Jellison suffered a broken collarbone, a concussion, and some bruising and swelling around the head after she fell heavily in a spill here in Friday's seventh race. Jellison, aboard Benny's Gem, was behind the field in the stretch when her mount bobbled and broke down, unseating the rider.