12/12/2002 12:00AM

New season has record purses and a graded $250K derby

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Tampa Bay Downs opens its gates Saturday for its 77th season of Thoroughbred racing. With a working contract between management and horsemen in place, and over 1,100 horses already on the grounds and 1,400 expected by the first of the year, fans shouldn't have to worry about the boycotts of the entry box by trainers and the small fields of last season.

The daily purse structure for this season will be the highest in the track's history at $105,000, and that will be buoyed by a strong stakes schedule highlighted by the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, which was upgraded to Grade 3 status.

The derby, which in recent years has attracted such future Triple Crown competitors as Menifee (1999) and Impeachment (2000), had its purse boosted by $50,000 and will be run on March 16. Other stakes to be run that day, Tampa Bay Downs' Festival Day, are the Grade 3, $150,000 Florida Oaks and the $100,000 Hillsborough Stakes.

The meeting will conclude May 4, the day after the Kentucky Derby.

The local training colony will again be headed by venerable Don Rice, who set a record for victories at a meeting last season en route to capturing his sixth training title. Others slated to return include Gerald Bennett, Tom Proctor, Randy Nunley, Barbara McBride, Pete Antonucci, Marshall Novak, Bruce Alexander, and Layne Giliforte. Among the newcomers are Brian House from Retama, John Betts, and Clance Zedner.

The battle for the riding title could be a wide-open one, as defending champion Terry Houghton will be sidelined for the beginning of the meeting, recuperating from injuries suffered in a spill at Great Lakes Downs.

Derek Bell, who won the riding title in 2000-01 season, is eager to bounce back from a subpar season and heads a group of riders that includes Juan Umana, Tom Pompell, Jesus Castanon, and Pedro Rodriguez.

Among the newcomers in the jocks' room is Joe Judice, who rode for several years on the Kentucky circuit before switching his tack to Great Lake Downs this season.

The wagering format has been expanded to include a third daily double on the seventh and eighth races on each program; a third pick three on the eighth, ninth, and 10th races; and a fourth superfecta.

Fans should have a better time finding and following their runners this season with the addition of the 27- by 16-foot video board located over the tote board in the infield.

Those wanting to work on their golf game while also making a bet or two will be able to do both starting in mid-January when the Tampa Bay Downs golf practice facility will open.

First-race post time will be 12:25 p.m., except March 16 and May 3, when it will be noon.

AT A GLANCE

TAMPA BAY DOWNS

RACING SCHEDULE: 94 days, open Dec. 14 (dark days in December, 16,18,20,23,24,25,30) Racing Thursday through Tuesday in January (dark Jan. 20); Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday in February and March (Dark March 27, 28); Saturday through Tuesday in April, (dark April 20, 28)

POST TIME: 12:25 p.m. (noon on March 16 and May 3)

ADMISSIONS: $2 Grandstand, $3 Clubhouse

SEATING: Free Grandstand, second floor Clubhouse

PARKING: Free; Preferred $2; Valet $4

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, Grade 3, $150,000 Florida Oaks, March 16

LOCATION: One mile east of Hillsborough Ave, on Race Track Road, just northwest of Tampa.

SIMULCASTING: Daily except Dec. 25 and April 20.

PHONE: 813-855-4401

INTERNET: www.tampabaydowns.com