12/02/2013 12:25PM

Tampa Bay Downs opens meet with richer purses

Tom Keyser
Jamie Ness led all trainers at Tampa Bay Downs with 46 wins during the 2012-13 race meet.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Some major shake-ups in the trainer and jockey ranks will be evident when Tampa Bay Downs kicks off the major portion of its 2013-14 live race meeting Wednesday.

The meeting actually began in early July, when Tampa ran a single card that qualified it as a year-round live racetrack. That has allowed Tampa to import simulcast signals as its own hub between July 2 and Dec. 4. It previously had paid another Florida racetrack to serve as its hub during that period.

The added revenue from the new arrangement has allowed Tampa to increase its overnight purses by 15 percent and thus be more competitive with its south Florida neighbors, Calder and Gulfstream. As an example, a maiden special weight purse is now $24,000, including $4,000 from the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.

Jamie Ness, who trains for the powerful Midwest Thoroughbred operation, has dominated the training ranks here since 2006. By his own admission, Ness is not exactly loaded for bear this season.

Ness has started considerably fewer horses in 2013 than he did the previous year. He said changes in the industry have made it tougher to find useful stock.

“The foal crops have been down, the field sizes around the country are way down, and it’s become very difficult to claim or buy horses that can be improved on and be successful,” Ness said. “This year, we’ll be leaving some of the higher-quality runners in Maryland because the purses there have gotten so big. Add to that the fact that Midwest has a number of yearlings and younger horses not ready to run yet, and much of our current racing stock was in need of a break after a long summer, and you can see why it will be tough to maintain our high ranking.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, but like most years here, we expect a lot of competition. There are a number of good outfits here, like those of Gerry Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell.”

Bennett tied for the top training spot with Ness at the 2010-11 meeting. His outfit has a number of young horses, and he realizes it’s always a gamble with those horses.

“We’ve got more young horses than usual this winter, and I think there’s talent in the group,” he said. “Of course, with young runners, it’s like raising kids – there are ups and downs and surprises, good and bad. I’ve got a Monarchos colt who won by many at Thistledown in his last race. Time will tell.”

Trainer Jorge Navarro, who finished second in the standings at this meet a year ago, has been denied stalls following a 60-day suspension for six medication violations at Tampa’s 2011-12 meeting. Jane Cibelli, who also was in the top 10 last year, has been denied stalls in the wake of a suspension regarding the race-day treatment of one of her runners last season.

Several new stables have shipped in, including those of Eoin Harty, Dana Kobiskie, and Tim Ice.

Dale Bennett returns after missing several winters and is expected to make his presence felt. The son of Gerald Bennett, Dale Bennett has a string that is topped by Cool Cowboy, a fast colt with two wins from four starts who is expected to run in Saturday’s $100,000 Inaugural Stakes.

The stakes schedule is topped by the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, which has become an increasingly popular Kentucky Derby prep in recent years. The March 8 Tampa Bay Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series and will offer 85 qualifying points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 basis.

The Tampa Bay Derby card also will include the Grade 3, $200,000 Florida Oaks and the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares, both on turf. In all, 25 stakes will be offered at the 91-day meeting, which runs through May 4, the day after the Kentucky Derby.

Jockey Daniel Centeno’s decision to stay in Maryland this winter means the battle to be leading rider should be wide open. Angel Serpa, who led the standings for a time here last year before finishing fourth, returns along with Fernando De La Cruz, who finished second.

Ron Allen Jr., who had 57 wins despite being sidelined with injuries during the last month of the meeting, returns, as does Scott Spieth, one of the smartest tactical riders in the business.

Fans will have new food and beverage options this season at the Riders Up bar, located directly across from the finish line on the main floor of the grandstand. New food and beverage director Andy York, who previously held a similar position at Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has altered the menu at the Metro Deli on the main floor of the grandstand to a New York delicatessen format.