02/18/2006 1:00AM

Quality horses spike handle


OLDSMAR Fla. - With slightly more than half of this 94-day race meeting in the books, Peter Berube, the vice president and general manager of Tampa Bay Downs, said he's pleased with the track's business figures.

"We've been fortunate to increase our ontrack handle some 5.6 percent to $306,400 through Friday's racing, and our combined handle totals are up some 9.3 percent to $3,533,000, which is very good," he said. "We're up on average $320,000 per day," he said

The increased business has come in John Morrissey's first year as racing secretary. Morrissey has infused new life into the program, bringing in a number of new stables, revamping the condition book, and using his years in the business to attract some household names to run here in races other than stakes and handicaps.

"John and his entire staff have done an outstanding job this season," Berube said. "Our starters per race is 9.84, which is up from last season, but more importantly the overall quality of the program is up substantially.

"We have races like optional claiming $60,000 and open $62,500 that we could never support before, and now we can.

"A good example of how far we've come is the Sam Davis. We had nine Triple Crown-nominated horses in the field, including some of the top contenders. Four years ago, we saw the opportunity to make the Sam Davis and the Tampa Bay Derby a viable road to Louisville and each year more and more top horsemen, like Nick Zito and others, are using that road."

With Saturday's Festival Preview Day, the March 18 Festival Day, which features the Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Oaks, and Florida Cup Day on April 8 still to come, Berube is optimistic things will get even better.

"I would think we should wind up averaging around $3.7 million, and that would be outstanding considering the bar gets higher every year."

Bell gaining momentum

Derek Bell, who had some rough going earlier in the meeting with a nagging ankle injury, has come to life of late and was voted jockey of the month.

Bell, who has 12 wins at the meeting, was leading rider here in 2000-01 and is a perennial top jockey at Canterbury Park in Minnesota during the summer months.