Updated on 12/06/2011 11:05AM

Tampa Bay Downs looks set for a strong meet


OLDSMAR, Fla. – Tampa Bay Downs, which begins its 86th season of racing Saturday, annually offers offers some of the largest average field sizes in the country and a stakes program highlighted by the Tampa Bay Derby. This year Tampa will add technology to its simulcast feed that will make it easier for fans to follow their selections during a race.

The new system, Trakus, utilizes a global positioning system to follow each horse in a race and shows the position of each runner on the live video feed. After a race has been run, a Trakus chart will show fans the exact distance each horse traveled.

On the record-keeping side, Trakus will report each horse’s position in a race as they pass different points of call. This information will help provide more accurate past performance information.

Trakus has been in place at Keeneland and Woodbine for several seasons and more recently has been put into use at a number of other major tracks.

Racing secretary Allison DeLuca reports there are already more than 900 horses on the grounds. Last season Tampa averaged 9.1 horses per race, which is one of the reasons the racing program here has proved popular with simulcast players. On opening-day, 105 horses are in the body of the 11 races carded, an average of 9.5 horses per race.

The Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby will be run March 10. That day’s card will also include the Grade 3, $125,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Also on the schedule is the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, the local prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, on Feb. 4.

The 92-day meeting will offer a 50-cent pick five, which will replace the pick six. The opening day feature is the $75,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares at five furlongs on the turf. There will be free admission opening day and ontrack fans will be able to watch the races on a number of new flat screen TV’s located throughout the plant.

The shake-up in south Florida racing dates this year – Calder is closing its meet early and Gulfstream is opening Saturday, a month earlier than usual – prompted Tampa management to move up its opening by one week. Tampa management has also made a concerted effort to attract trainers from south Florida to race here this season. Antonio Sano, who won the training title at the Calder summer meeting and led the Tropical meet standings by one win coming into Thursday’s races, will have horses at Tampa for the first time this season, as will Daniel Pita, who won at a 20-percent clip at the Calder summer meet.

Other horsemen with south Florida ties racing at Tampa this season include Leo Azpurua Jr. and Jorge Navarro, who won at better than a 23-percent clip here last season.

The overall trainer population has never been stronger, with high profile conditioners Graham Motion and Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard having divisions at Tampa for the first time. Former Bill Mott assistant Will Phipps will also have horses at Tampa.

Gerald Bennett and Jamie Ness, who finished in a tie for the training title here last season with 61 wins, are both back. Ness finished second in the standings at Delaware Park this year to Juan Vazquez, who will also race at Tampa this winter.

Bennett has 40 head on the grounds, including Gibson, who won the $125,000 Jack Dudley Sprint for Florida-breds at Calder by 6 1/2 lengths in his most recent start.

The battle for leading jockey should be wide open this season since Daniel Centeno will be riding at Gulfstream. Centeno dominated the riding colony with four straight titles from 2007-2010 and was in well in front last season before being injured. Ronnie Allen Jr. finished strongly to take the riding title with 109 wins and figures to challenge for the top spot again as he and his brother, Mike, will both have former jockey Paula Bacon as their agent. Bacon has handled several top riders in recent years.

Another rider expected to be a threat for the title is Rosemary Homeister Jr. who will be returning to action after the birth of her first child. Homeister won 98 races to finish second here during the 2009-2010 meeting.

Others in what shapes shapes up as one of the deepest and talented riding colonies in years here are Mark Guidry, Leandro Goncalves, Rickey Feliciano, Luis Garcia, Frederick Lenclud, Angel Serpa, and Dean Butler.

Track announcer Grunder to miss beginning of meet

Richard Grunder, the track announcer at Tampa Bay Downs since 1984, will miss the first seven days of the meet as he completes his rehabilitation following minor eye surgery. During Grunder’s absence, Bobby Neuman, the announcer at Calder Race Course, which concluded its meet Friday, will call the races.