04/24/2004 12:00AM

Improved racing key to successful meet


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Some racetracks rely heavily on alternative sources of income, such as slot machines, while others are struggling just to stay in business.

So can a racetrack in this day and age not only survive, but prosper with racing as its primary attraction?

The answer here is a resounding yes.

As the 2003-04 race meeting moves into its final days, the figures paint a rosy picture for Tampa Bay Downs. Ontrack attendance, a figure many tracks don't even discuss publicly anymore, is up about 12 percent this season; on-track handle is up about 22 percent; and the all-sources handle, which is up $52 million has increased close to 25 percent.

The addition of a card room has been profitable for Tampa Bay Downs, the picnic area has become a popular area for families, and its state-of-the-art golf practice and instruction facility has been a success in its first full year of operation. But the main money-making product is racing.

Tampa Bay Downs vice president and general manager Peter Berube pointed to a number of factors that have contributed to this year's success, but the continual improvement of the racing product headed his list.

"It's very gratifying to say the least," said Berube, who was appointed general manager three years ago. "We made a strong effort to bring in some new stables and improve our racing program overall, and the increased purses also attracted a very strong riding colony. The result has been very competitive racing with big fields, and our new seven-furlong chute has allowed us to run bigger fields in six-and-a-half and seven-furlong races. I think the fact that both the trainer's and rider's races are going to go down to the final days are a good indication of how competitive our racing has been this season."

Weather, which has always been one of Tampa Bay Downs' strongest selling points, was a plus again. There was very little rain, which allowed more use of the turf course.

"The good weather and an outstanding job by our maintenance staff made it possible to run more than 190 turf races this winter, which is a 10 percent increase over past years, and our turf racing is by far the most popular type of racing for our bettors and patrons," Berube said. "Our purses are at $135,000 per day, which is the highest in nine years, and the fact we were able to attract horses like The Cliff's Edge and Limehouse indicates we are on the map when it comes to attracting top horses."

Rider, trainer races go down to wire

The jockey and trainer races could come down to the final races of the meeting. Going into Saturday's races, T.D. Houghton held a one-win edge over Jesus Castanon in the race for leading rider. In the trainers' race, Lynn Scace and Ronald Allen Sr. are deadlocked at 23 wins, with Layne Gilforte just one back in third.

Horse and claim of the meeting

Although she was disqualified from a victory in the $75,000 Turf Distaff Stakes here on Florida Cup Day, Improvised, the speedy turf mare who dominated the female portion of the Tampa Turf Test - a series of starter allowance races - has to be the horse of the meeting. Five-time winners Out of Pride and Silver Alarm deserve honorable mention.

Claim of the meeting should go to Chenia, who was haltered for $12,500 by trainer Marshall Novak and came back three races later to upset her field in the $75,000 Stonehedge Farm Sophomore Fillies Stakes at 20-1.