12/13/2001 1:00AM

New meet, new deal for bettors


Drawing on the success of several other racetracks, Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla., will offer a frequent-bettor promotion for the first time during the track's upcoming live race meet, which is scheduled to begin Saturday.

The promotion, called "The Club," will allow members to cash in points based on wagering action for programs, food vouchers, free admission, mutuel vouchers, and a trip to Las Vegas. Many U.S. tracks, taking their cues from casinos, have implemented similar programs for bettors, including the tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. and Turfway Park.

On the racetrack, the Grade 3, $200,000 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 3, $150,000 Florida Oaks on March 17 - St. Patrick's Day - will highlight the 93-day live meet. The $100,000 Hillsborough Stakes will also be run that day.

Post time each day will be 12:30 p.m. Eastern. Live racing will be conducted five days a week, Thursday through Sunday and Tuesday, except for Friday, Dec. 21; Christmas Day; and Fridays in April and May. The track will be open for simulcasting on dark days, except on Christmas.

The Tampa meet is overshadowed in Florida by the Gulfstream meet in Miami, which draws some of the best horses in the country to south Florida. But despite that, Tampa officials said that the track received 2,900 stall applications for a backstretch with only 1,330 stalls.

"We believe that at least on paper we have the strongest group of horses ever stabled at Tampa Bay Downs," said Peter Berube, Tampa's vice president and general manager.

Tampa's stall applications, however, continue to be a source of controversy. Earlier this week, the Texas Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association voted to withhold simulcast signals from Tampa because the track did not award stalls to Bob Jeffries, a member of the Florida HBPA board. Jeffries and others in the HBPA maintain that he was denied stalls because of bitter contract negotiations between the track and horsemen last year.

As a result, Tampa bettors will not receive the signal from Sam Houston Race Park in Texas.

"I hate for these things to happen, and I wish it wouldn't," said John Roark, the president of the Texas HBPA. "But they have to start treating their horsemen as other tracks do."

A number of other HBPA affiliates are considering withdrawing their approval for simulcasting as well, including the Kentucky HBPA.

Tampa has projected that average daily purse distribution will be $101,000 a day, including bonus money for state-bred races and stakes. The opening projection slightly eclipses the average daily purse distribution of $99,000 during last year's meet.