12/09/2004 12:00AM

Prosperity should continue at new meet


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Fresh from a record 2003-04 season that saw double-digit increases in ontrack attendance and all-sources handle, as well as fields that averaged almost 10 horses per race, Tampa Bay Downs will attempt to keep the momentum going by offering improved fan amenities and a beefed-up stakes schedule when the track begins its 2004-05 meeting Saturday.

While many tracks around the country have struggled in recent years, Tampa Bay has improved its racing product and prospered. With a large simulcast network and a clean, well-maintained facility, the track is drawing more fans trackside and is attracting increased wagering at outlets around the country.

Fields that ranked among the largest in the country last year have been producing juicy exotic payoffs. The average exacta payoff here last year was $122. Trifectas averaged $1,050 and daily double payoffs averaged $153.

Purses have climbed steadily in recent years for both overnight races and stakes. The $75,000 Holiday Inn Turf Express at five furlongs on the grass has been added to Tampa Bay Derby Day on March 19, which will now include four stakes, highlighted by the Grade 3 derby.

Preview Day, highlighted by the $100,000 Sam F. Davis, will be on

Feb. 19, while Florida Cup Day, featuring six stakes with Florida-breds preferred, will be April 9.

The $60,000 Inaugural Stakes is the feature on the 11-race opening day program. Get Wild, winner of 2 of his 4 lifetime starts and an unlucky sixth in the Huntington Stakes at Aqueduct last time out, tops a full field of 14 2-year-olds in the six-furlong sprint.

Jose Ferrer, one of several new additions to the riding colony, will ride Get Wild for trainer Allen Iwinski.

The competition includes Captain Lindsay, who finished fourth in the Birdonawire Stakes at Calder last time out; Lucky Frolic, who turns back in distance after leading into the stretch of the $150,000 Jack Price Juvenile at Calder; and Sounds Impossible, most recently a solid second in a quickly run allowance sprint at The Meadowlands.

Last season, Tampa was able to post gains despite being unable to reach agreements to take incoming simulcasts from Aqueduct and Santa Anita. The track's current contract with the New York Racing Association runs through the end of December, but no long-range agreement has been reached.

Negotiations are also ongoing to obtain the rights to simulcast races from Fair Grounds.

Tampa Bay was one of the first tracks in the country to refuse to beam its signal to off-shore books and rebate shops, which have recently been the center of controversy regarding large wagers that come in just prior to post. Tampa will continue its policy.

"We believe refusing to allow these businesses to take our signal keeps the playing field level for the majority of fans and keeps the little guy from feeling like he's been left out or run over by big-money players with state-of-the-art computerized wagering programs," said Pete Berube, Tampa Bay Downs vice president and general manager.

Permanent concession stands and restrooms have been added to the picnic area. A more accessible entrance has been added to the area adjacent to the paddock. Also new this season is the Trackside Garden Suite, a two-story facility located near the first turn that offers an open-air view of the track from its upper level.

The barn area is already close to capacity. New faces in the training ranks include Charles Hadry Jr. from Maryland, Dennis Ebert from Chicago, and Elwood McCann, who handles a string for Dogwood Stables. Several Miami-based trainers will have outfits here this season, including David Fawkes, Henry Collazo, and Joe Waunsch, who returns to the track where he was leading trainer in 1989-90.

The riding colony will be deep again this season, headed by Jesus Castanon and T.D. Houghton, who battled to the final days for leading rider honors last season, along with Juan Umana, Joe Judice, and Oliver Castillo.

New faces include Roberto Pena, who finished third in the rider standings at Great Lakes Downs last summer, Orlando Mojica from Kentucky, Miguel Mena from the Chicago circuit, and Nik Goodwin from Maryland.