12/08/2005 1:00AM

New faces on the scene for 80th year

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OLDSMAR Fla. - Tampa Bay Downs, once considered "that little track" on Florida's west coast, has come of age. On Saturday Tampa Bay will start its 80th season of Thoroughbred racing with full fields, fresh faces, and a goal to continue an upswing in business that has gained national attention the past five years.

Tampa Bay Downs will run a 94-day live meeting featuring a purse structure of more than $125,000 a day. The track's stakes schedule of 26 races will offer $2.3 million in purses.

Tampa Bay has lowered its takeout slightly this season. Takeout on exactas will go from 22.5 percent to 21.5, on daily doubles and quinellas from 22.5 to 20 percent, and on pick threes and pick fours from 25.9 percent to 25 percent.

A record number of applications for the approximately 1,400 available stalls gave the track's new racing secretary, John Morrissey, plenty of horses to choose from, and approximately 22 percent of the stables here will be new to Tampa Bay Downs.

"While we are happy that many of the regulars from past years are returning, we also felt we needed to bring in some fresh faces," Morrissey said.

One of the bigger new names racing here regularly for the first time is Jerry Hollendorfer, one of winningest trainers in the nation. Other notable newcomers include Forest Kaelin, Wesley Ward, Merrill Scherer, and Lonnie Arterburn.

There figures to be a scramble for the top spot among riders, as Jesus Castanon, the leading rider here last season, will remain in Kentucky. Among those who figure to challenge perennial power T.D. Houghton for the top spot are Joe Rocco Sr., Juan Umana, Winston Thompson, and Aurelio Toribio Jr.

The opening-day feature is the $60,000 Inaugural Stakes at six furlongs, which drew a full field of 14 2-year-olds.

Four multiple stakes days will be held during the meet. The Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby tops the stakes schedule and will share the spotlight on the March 18 Festival of Racing program with the $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes, and the $75,000 Turf Dash. Preview Day on Feb. 18 will feature the $125,000 Sam Davis Stakes, $125,000 Endeavour for fillies and mares on the turf, and $60,000 Suncoast for 3-year-old fillies. Florida Cup Day on April 6 will offer six $75,000 stakes that give preference to Florida-breds. Closing day, May 6, will feature the $75,000 Chris Thomas Turf Classic and $75,000 Lightning City Stakes.