11/27/2014 3:00PM

Meeting opens with strong interest from horsemen

Tom Keyser
Tampa Bay Downs will open on Saturday with a 10-race card.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Tampa Bay Downs, which has become one of the more popular betting venues in the country for horseplayers during the winter months, with full fields and competitive racing, kicks off its 2014-15 meeting Saturday with its earliest opening date in recent memory.

The track, located just outside the city limits of Tampa, will present a 10-race program, with first post set for 12:22 p.m. Eastern.

The changing face of racing in south Florida apparently has a number of horsemen from that area looking elsewhere to race, as Tampa Bay Downs officials report that there were almost twice as many requests for stalls as there was available space. There are approximately 1,400 stalls on the backstretch.

The Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, which has produced Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010), tops a stakes program for the 90-day meeting that offers more than $2.6 million in stakes purses.

The Tampa Bay Derby will be one of three graded races March 7, Festival Day. Also on that card will be the Grade 3, $100,000 Florida Oaks and the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes.

The Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes will highlight Festival Preview Day on Jan. 31, when the Grade 3, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on turf also will be run.

Jamie Ness, with more than 2,100 career wins in his 15-year career, returns to defend his title as leading trainer. Ness has won or shared leading-trainer honors in each of the past seven meetings. Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell, who shared the top spot with Ness in 2010-11 and 2008-09, respectively, return, along with Tom Proctor, Dale Bennett, and Jason DaCosta. Each of those outfits won at better than a 20 percent rate last season at Tampa.

Other horsemen who were successful at better than 20 percent last season include Arnaud Delacour, Tony Granitz, Joan Scott, Anthony Pecoraro, and Herman Wilensky.

Efran Losa Jr. made only 11 starts last season with a small string but won six of those races and bears watching this season, as he has been given 14 stalls.

There will be several interesting new stables on the Tampa backstretch this season, with John Rigattieri foremost among them. Rigattieri has won more than 2,500 races in a training career that spans more than 38 years, and he has won 19 percent of his starts lifetime. In recent years, Rigattieri has raced with success both at Suffolk Downs and at tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Also returning is John Terranova, who sent out Falling Sky to win the Sam F. Davis Stakes and to a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby last season.

Antonio Gallardo, who kicked off a breakout year by taking the riding title last meeting with 124 wins, will be back but faces some stiff competition from a deep and talented group of jockeys. Heading those challengers are the veteran Ronnie Allen Jr., who also won more than 100 races (110) at last year’s meeting, and Fernando De La Cruz, who got off to a fast start here last meeting and was atop the standings before missing a month with a broken wrist.

Five-time champion Daniel Centeno also figures to be a factor, while Tampa Bay Downs newcomer Chris Emigh, with more than 3,500 wins in his career, also bears watching. Fan favorite Rosemary Homeister Jr. was among the leaders in 2011, when she was forced to discontinue riding after she found out she was pregnant with her first child. Her child, Victoria Rose, was born in August 2011.

Another rider who returns full time is Victor Lebron, who won at least 116 races each season from 2006-12.

Da Mi Basia Mille, who moves to Delacour’s barn from Christophe Clement’s, and Make It Snappy, a Darley Stable runner who was a sharp winner over the Tapeta surface at Presque Isle Downs this summer and is making her turf debut, top a wide-open field of allowance runners going 1 1/16 miles on turf in the opening-day headliner, the eighth race on the card.