12/06/2007 12:00AM

Graded count at Tampa now up to four

EmailOLDSMAR Fla. - The quality of racing and the amount wagered on the races at Tampa Bay Downs have been on the rise for much of this decade, and that trend may well continue when the track's 81st season begins Saturday.

The recent upgrading of the $200,000 Florida Oaks and $150,000 Endeavour Breeders' Cup to Grade 3 status should help the quality of those races this season, as should the $50,000 purse increase to the Sam F. Davis Stakes, which will make the local prep for the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby worth $200,000. Other stakes purses raised for this meet are those of the Endeavour, by $25,000, and the Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes, from $150,000 to $175,000.

"This is the first time in the history of the track that both the Florida Oaks and the Tampa Bay Derby and both turf events for fillies and mares [the Hillsborough and the Endeavour BC] have all achieved Grade 3 status, and we are all very pleased," said Peter Berube, the track's vice president and general manager. "We have worked hard to improve the quality of our races, and this will be a significant step in attracting more Triple Crown-caliber horses and turf specialists."

Last year's Tampa Bay Derby helped solidify the race's standing as a viable Kentucky Derby prep, as the 2006 2-year-old champion, Street Sense, began his Kentucky Derby-winning season by defeating Any Given Saturday by a nose.

This year's 26-race stakes schedule will offer total of $2.6 million in purses during the 94-day meet, which will run through the first Sunday in May.

The premier afternoon of the season is Festival Day on March 15, when three graded races will be run: the Tampa Bay Derby, the Florida Oaks, and the Hillsborough. The card will also include the $75,000 Turf Dash.

On Feb. 16, Tampa will present its annual Preview Day program, which will be topped by the Sam F. Davis, won last season by Any Given Saturday. The Preview Day card will also offer the Endeavour and the $75,000 Suncoast Stakes.

Florida-breds will be in the spotlight on April 5, when six $85,000 races will be run. This season, all Florida Day races will be restricted to horses foaled in Florida.

Another interesting afternoon of racing is slated for Dec. 29, when every race on the program will be for 2-year-olds, including the $65,000 Inaugural Stakes.

The barn area has been filling up rapidly, and the battle for leading trainer figures to be hard-fought. Last season, the stables of Jamie Ness, Lynn Scace, and Gerald Bennett were close through most of the season before Ness pulled away in the final days to win the title with 38 victories. All three are back this season.

Newcomers include Tim Ritchey, of Afleet Alex fame, who has 16 stalls, and Michelle Nihei, who will be striking out on her own after being a top exercise rider for Todd Pletcher. Nihei, who galloped, among others, the champion filly Ashado, will have horses for top Ohio patron Elisabeth Alexander and Dogwood Stables.

Jockey Daniel Centeno, who set a record for races won at the meet last season with 125 wins, will be back to defend his riding title but may face some stiff competition from what shapes up as one of the stronger riding colonies in recent years. Solid newcomers include Jose Velez Jr., a perennial favorite at Monmouth, and Rosemary Homeister Jr., a Miami mainstay who enjoyed some success at Delaware Park and Presque Isle Downs this past summer and fall.

Fans will also see a new look here as the third floor of the grandstand will feature an expanded poker area as well as a full-service bar. An elevator is in the process of being installed near the main grandstand entrance.

Haddie Be Good, a versatile and well-traveled turf specialist who captured the Candy Eclair this summer at Monmouth, takes on local favorite Bucky's Prayer in the opening-day feature, Saturday's $65,000 Lightning City Stakes at five furlongs on the turf.

Haddie Be Good, trained by John Hennig, will seek her sixth career win and fourth tally on the grass.

Bucky's Prayer, winner of three wins locally, comes off a short freshening. Her last win came over the Tampa turf course at five furlongs, and earlier in her career the 5-year-old mare finished second in the Grab Green Stakes on the turf at Saratoga.

Others in the field that bear watching include Fan Time, a winner on both coasts sprinting on turf, and Royal Regan, a stakes winner sprinting on the turf at Colonial Downs this summer.