05/10/2012 2:05PM

Delaware Park opens 75th anniversary season with Winter Melody Stakes

Barbara D. Livingston
Bahama Bound will be among the favorites in Saturday's Winter Melody Stakes at Delaware Park.

A significant purse boost to one of its signature races, a revised weekday schedule, and an increased emphasis on carding overnight stakes are among the most notable changes as Delaware Park launches its 75th anniversary season Saturday.

The track, located just south of Wilmington, will present 100 days of live racing, one less than 2011, when five days were lost to poor weather. The season begins two weeks later than last year with a nine-race card featuring the first of 21 scheduled overnight stakes, the $50,000 Winter Melody, a 1 1/16-mile race that serves as the first local prep for fillies and mares on the road to the meet’s biggest race, the 75th running of the Delaware Handicap.

A field of seven for the Winter Melody includes Bahama Bound, third in the Grade 2 Top Flight Handicap last time out while making her first start for trainer Tony Dutrow, and Ms Vanenzza, a 5-year-old mare who last season picked up a second and two thirds in a trio of Grade 3 sprints.

The increased number of overnight stakes assures that there will be stakes of some kind on every Saturday throughout the season, along with five overnight stakes on weekdays.

As a reflection of all-sources handle that plummeted 16 percent in 2011 to $190,198,242 – the lowest total since 1995, the last season before the arrival of slots – Delaware has reduced purses, eliminated three stakes, and cut $350,000 from stakes purses. Gone from the stakes schedule are the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial for sprinters and a pair of route races for older horses, the R.R.M. Carpenter and the Brandywine. Although the Brandywine was not contested in 2011, it dates back to the track’s first season in 1937.

In addition to its traditional big days focused on the Delaware Oaks and Delaware Handicap, the track has created a third major event day on Oct. 20 by combining Owners’ Day and Delaware Certified race day with the $100,000 Barbaro for 3-year-olds to form a seven-stakes package.

Overnight purses averaged $225,000 in 2011, but that figure is projected to drop to about $190,000 this season. Purses for maiden special weight races, worth $40,000 last year, are now $36,000. Purses for first- and second-level allowances dropped $3,000 apiece to $38,000 and $39,000, respectively. Although the bottom level for claiming races has been raised from $5,000 to $6,250, those horses will compete for $12,000 compared with $15,000 for bottom-level claimers a year ago.

The first official stakes, the John Rooney Memorial, doesn’t take place until June 2, launching a 19-stakes package worth $2.82 million. As usual, the stakes season highlights will occur on back-to-back weekends in July.

The Grade 2 Delaware Oaks, which received a $100,000 purse hike to $400,000, is scheduled for July 14 as the feature on a card that includes the Grade 3 Robert Dick Memorial on turf. The race is expected to be a target for last week’s Kentucky Oaks winner, Believe You Can. A week later, on July 21, the Grade 2, $750,000 Delaware Handicap headlines a three-stakes program that includes the $100,000 Sussex on the turf.

Delaware also will offer 15 stakes – seven of them graded – for Arabians, highlighted by a pair of Grade 1 events on closing day, the $75,000 Delaware Park Arabian Classic Handicap at 1 1/4 miles and the $50,000 Buzz Brauniger Distaff Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

Delaware is experimenting by racing on Thursdays rather than Tuesdays this season, joining Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday during the four-day race week. The Thursday programs will not begin until May 24. The track also plans to hold a special Sunday card on Father’s Day, June 17, in place of its usual Monday program the following day.

Jamie Ness, coming off a record-breaking meet at Tampa Bay Downs in which his horses won at 46 percent, will be favored to dethrone two-time defending leading trainer Juan Vazquez. Ness, second in the standings at Delaware a year ago, will be well stocked with runners from his main client, Midwest Thoroughbreds.

“The bottom line is our horses fit well into the Delaware Park program,” said Ness, 35. “We had a great season last year and we are optimistic we can carry that success over into 2012. I also have stalls at Penn National, Presque Isle, and Laurel, so it is very centrally located with my other strings.”

Joe Rocco Jr. topped the jockey standings in 2011, but may be hard pressed to defend his title, depending on who becomes the go-to rider for Ness. Abel Castellano Jr., who went 10 for 26 teaming up with Ness locally last season, and the Florida-based Daniel Centeno, who won at a 45 percent clip for Ness at Tampa Bay, are two possibilities as leading rider candidates. Centeno is named to ride three horses for Ness on opening day.