12/09/2010 3:57PM

Meet opens with lower minimums for several exotic bets

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OLDSMAR, Fla. – Reduced minimum betting amounts on many exotic wagers and the chance to possibly see a future Kentucky Derby winner up close are just a few of the attractions that await racing fans this season as Tampa Bay Downs begins its 85th racing season on Saturday with an 11-race program. The 91-day meet will continue through May 8.

The Tampa Bay Derby, a race that has gained considerable stature as a Kentucky Derby prep in recent years, has been upgraded to a Grade 2 and also given a purse boost to $350,000 this year. The race, which will top Festival Day on March 12, has produced two Kentucky Derby winners from its past four runnings, Super Saver in 2010 and Street Sense in 2007.

Also upgraded on the stakes program is the Tampa Bay Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race which was formerly known as the Tampa Bay Breeders’ Cup Stakes. The race, which last season attracted Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti, has been granted Grade 3 status and will be run on March 19.

The Florida Oaks lost its graded status this year and has been moved to the turf. The Oaks, formerly run on the Tampa Bay Derby undercard, will be run as part of Preview Day on Feb. 12. That card will be highlighted by the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, a 1 1/16-mile prep for the Tampa Bay Derby.

The actions of the North American Graded Stakes Committee were good news for Tampa.

“We’re obviously pleased that the grading committee felt the quality of several of our races has improved enough to warrant raising their graded status,” said Allison Deluca, Tampa’s racing secretary.

Deluca went on to say that several new outfits would be stabled here for the first time this year, including Carl Nafzger, Dave Vance, and Ian Wilkes.

“We will also have some stables from western Canada,” Deluca said, “so it should give the fans some interesting cards to wager on.”

On the wagering front, Tampa is following the national trend of offering exotics at low minimum wagering amounts. There will be 50-cent pick threes, pick fours, and trifectas, as well as 10-cent superfectas.

The takeout on pick threes and pick fours as well as the Super Hi Five and pick six has been reduced from 19 percent to 18 percent.

The opening day feature,the $75,000 Lightning City Stakes, a five-furlong turf sprint, has drawn 14 fillies and mares, although no more than 10 may start, and looks like a wide-open affair.

Mahinder, from the Tom Amoss barn, comes into the feature off a front-running allowance win over the Churchill Downs turf course but faces challenges from several in the field, including Aegean, winner of the Dream Supreme Stakes over the main track at Churchill, as well as Jehan, who finished second in the Sweet and Sassy Stakes at Delaware Park last out.

Mimi’s Bling, winner of the $100,000 Franklin County Stakes over the turf at Keeneland in her most recent start, might be the class of the field but will have to draw in from also-eligible list to make the starting lineup.