03/12/2005 1:00AM

Business booming as festival nears

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OLDSMAR Fla. - Purses at Tampa Bay Downs have been raised twice since the beginning of the meeting, the track set a new all-sources handle record for a single program three weeks ago, and on Saturday, Sun King, one of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby, is scheduled to race here in the Tampa Bay Derby.

These are indeed heady times for Peter Berube, Tampa Bay Downs vice president and general manager. He's pleasantly surprised at the continued upswing this track has shown the past four seasons.

"It's always a challenge to improve on a good meeting but we've been pleased that our all-sources handle is up 10 percent and that we're averaging $3.34 million a day," Berube said. "And we're still seeing increases from week to week. If our business continues as it is, this will be the fourth straight year of double-digit increases. We're proud of the fact our handle has increased some 87 percent since 2000."

With increased business comes increased purses. Berube points out that the purse for maiden special weight races will now be $18,000, while a nonwinners-of-three allowance race will sport a $20,000 purse.

"We've never had allowance races with $20,000 purses before," he said. "And while we've had some increased competition for horses since Gulfstream has started writing more low to medium range claiming races, our fields are still averaging 9.5 horses per race. We'll have some top horses here for our Festival Day on Saturday, with any luck we'll challenge our new handle record."

New owner posts phenomenal percentage

Richard Averill, a 29-year-old from the Bradenton area who owns a masonry business, claimed his first horse in partnership for $14,000. When the horse won here in his first start for his new owners, Averill caught the bug.

"After Fun n' Gun won here the first time we ran him I was hooked," Averill said.

Averill's runners have started 13 times at the current meeting and have won 10 of those races for a 76 percent win average. Averill is quick to point out that while he picks the horses to be claimed, it's Kirk Ziadie, a horseman who has been winning races here at a high percentage the past two seasons, who deserves the credit.

"Kirk's incredible, nobody works harder than he does; he has to win," Averill said, "He's at the barn at 3 in the morning and he's still there at 7 at night. He doesn't do anything but devote himself to his horses, and it shows."

One of Averill's better runners is Gaelic Boy, a turf specialist he purchased privately who has won six races since coming to the Ziadie barn. Averill also has high hopes for R Lady's Joy, a $72,000 purchase from the March 2004 sale at Ocala. She was a romping seven-length winner here last month.