01/25/2003 12:00AM

Handle soaring despite obstacles

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - It's been that kind of meet at Tampa Bay Downs- record rainfall and cold temperatures, a forced cancellation of racing opening weekend, and competition from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their drive to the Super Bowl.

But, astonishingly, business hasn't been bad. If fact, buoyed by a 22 percent increase in overall handle, track management last week announced a 6 percent purse increase, and in spite of all the obstacles, business is booming.

"Our horsemen have been entering their horses in record numbers and we're able to present the fans with large, competitive fields, good turf racing, and an overall improved product," said Tampa Bay Downs vice president and general manager Peter Berube. "And the fans both here and around the country have responded by pushing our overall handle to a record high."

Last season, overall daily handle averaged $1.8 million; this year that figure has jumped above the $2 million mark. Through Friday, the average daily handle was $2.2 million. One major reason for the increase is the track's decision to run three Mondays in January. Mondays are good because few other tracks are open, and the competition for simulcasting dollars is relatively soft. Tampa Bay handled $3,593,632 on one of the Mondays.

"It's true, losing our opening weekend to the elements hurt, but as the figures show, we're putting out a good product and the fans are responding," Berube said.

The track will pick up one of two lost racing dates on March 27.

"We're going to race that last Thursday in March but we won't reschedule the other racing date," Berube said. "Hopefully, fan interest will remain high, the increase in purses will improve our product even more, and the trend will continue.

"It's nice that more and more people around the country are finding out about Tampa Bay Downs and what we have to offer."

Exotics paying big balloons

One reason horseplayers like Tampa racing is the lucrative payoffs in the exotic wagers. While favorites are winning at a 30 percent clip, the average win price is almost 6-1. The average quinella payoff is $53, exactas around $97, and trifectas $991. Pick three payoffs are averaging $857, superfectas a whopping $6,490. Players get bang for their buck in exotics at Tampa Bay Downs.

Castanon riding high

Jesus Castanon is on fire. The quiet-spoken rider is letting his mounts do the talking at this meeting, where he is winning a whopping 29.4 percent of his rides through Friday - 40 winners in 136 mounts. Joe Judice, Juan Umana, Tommy Pompell, and Russell Woolsey are also riding in good form.

Among trainers, Don Rice is starting to roll. The six-time leading trainer here, he had won with 6 of his last 18 starters through Friday, and was creeping up on standings leader Lynn Scace. Rice had 10 wins, one less than Scace. Barbara McBride was another win behind with nine, and Richard Ciardullo had eight.