11/29/2012 3:48PM

Tampa Bay Downs: New wrinkles should help increase handle, field size

Tom Keyser
Tampa Bay Downs begins a 91-day season Saturday that will continue through May 5, 2013.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Over the past decade Tampa Bay Downs has emerged as a major player on the winter racing scene with the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby developing into a legitimate Kentucky Derby prep. On the business side, the operation has almost doubled its all-sources average daily handle.

But last season the track suffered declines in both handle and average field size, with all-sources handle down almost 11 percent from the previous year and field size dropping from 9.11 to 8.54 horses per race. Contributing factors included problems with the turf course late in the season and a disagreement that kept Tampa’s races from being broadcast on Television Games Network.

As the track begins a 91-day meeting Saturday, management is cautiously optimistic that a revised racing schedule, a vigorous slate of turf racing, and a return to TVG will help the operation bounce back.

“I think our declines last season were a reflection of the overall climate of racing,” said track president Peter Berube. “The economic situation has hit all segments of racing. You see trainers who used to have 30 or 40 horses now have 12 or 15. Foal production is down and the industry as a whole is struggling.”

[TAMPA BAY DOWNS: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full card live]

Berube said that Tampa has taken steps he thinks will go a long way toward putting the track back on an upward climb.

“We have reduced the number of five-day racing weeks from eight to six this season,” he said. “We feel this will put less strain on our horse population and will enable us to increase our overall field size.

“In additon we have reconditioned our turf course and plan on offering even more turf races than last season when we ran over 200 races on the grass. Turf racing is very popular with bettors and we plan on giving them more turf racing than ever at Tampa this meeting.”

An agreement was reached Thursday to put the Tampa races back on TVG.

“Fans who have wagering accounts or bet and return home like the convenience of watching races on TV,” he said, “and TVG is a major player.”

A full slate of stakes races, starting with the $75,000 Inaugural and $75,000 Sandpiper Stakes on opening day, are scheduled. The two biggest days of the meet will be March 9, when the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes will be run, and the Feb. 2 card, which will showcase the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam Davis and Grade 3, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes. The Tampa Bay Derby is part of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system with the first four finishers earning points on a 50-20-10-5 basis.

Jamie Ness, the leading trainer in North America by wins this year, has won or shared the last seven Tampa training titles. He will be challenged by several top stables, including those of Gerald Bennett, who tied with Ness for leading trainer in 2010-11; Jane Cibelli, who is completing her best year in terms of races won and purse earnings; and others like Leigh Delacour, Kathleen O’Connell, and Jorge Navarro.

Four-time leading rider Daniel Centeno tops a strong jockey colony that includes 2010-11 leading rider Ronnie Allen along with Angel Serpa, Scott Spieth, and newcomer Victor Santiago.