03/07/2006 1:00AM

One-day purse hike at Tampa

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In an attempt to ensure full fields and lure shippers from Miami for the undercard races on the biggest day of its meet, Tampa Bay Downs will increase purses for all overnight races by 35 percent on Festival Day, March 18.

The purse increase translates to approximately $5,000 per race, and the expense will be split evenly by the track and the horsemen's purse account, as approved by the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, according to track publicist Margo Flynn.

Festival Day is highlighted by three stakes: the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the $200,000 Florida Oaks, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes.

"We are trying to make the afternoon even bigger by increasing our overnight purses with the belief that field size and mutuel handle will increase substantially," said track vice president Peter Berube.

Tampa Bay management expects to pay out more than $850,000 in purses on the day.

Festival Day and Festival Preview Day, which also offers three stakes, have been well supported by bettors in recent years. Last year's Festival Day handled more than $6.8 million, an increase of $1.5 million from 2004. Festival Preview Day, which was held Feb. 18 this year, handled a Tampa Bay record of $7.4 million and was the first time the track ever handled more than $7 million.

Bluegrass Cat, one of the leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby, won the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Festival Preview Day and is expected to return for the Tampa Bay Derby.