12/07/2006 12:00AM

Stakes purses at an all-time high

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OLDSMAR Fla. – A new racing secretary and a state of the art infield video screen to help fans better follow their runners are some of the changes Tampa Bay Downs has made for its 94-day season that begins Saturday and runs through May 6. But, as has been the case here for several years, the main attraction of the Tampa meet will be full fields of competitive runners racing over a safe and consistent main track and a lush turf course.

The Tampa Bay stakes program, which has risen in prominence steadily in recent years as the Tampa Bay Derby has become an accepted Kentucky Derby prep, will offer a record $2.5 million this season. The schedule is topped by the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, which has had its purse increased from $250,000 to $300,000 this year. Last season’s Tampa Bay Derby runner-up and Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Bluegrass Cat went on to finish second in both the Derby and Belmont and won the Haskell Invitational before being retired with more than $1 million in earnings.

The Tampa Bay Derby headlines the biggest card of the meet, Festival Day on March 17. The Festival Day card will offer four stakes, including the $200,000 Florida Oaks and Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf.

The Sam F. Davis, which tops Festival Preview Day on Feb. 17, also received a purse increase for this year and will be worth $150,000, up from $125,000 a year ago. The Festival Preview Day program will also offer the $125,000 Endeavour Stakes on the turf and the $75,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Florida-breds will receive preferential entry status on the meet’s third biggest card, Florida Cup Day on April 7, when six stakes will offer $85,000 purses.

In 1987, Allison De Luca became the first female racing secretary at a major track when she took over at Sportsmans Park. She was named to the racing secretary’s post here after John Morrissey, who did a fine job improving the quality of racing here last year, opted to resign to spend more time with his family. De Luca has more recently held the post of assistant racing secretary at both Keeneland and Churchill.

The new Dakronics infield video board will be a new addition this season. It has 16-by-30-foot screen, and a high-resolution picture.

The opening day feature is the $60,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds at six furlongs.