05/04/2011 3:33PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Trainer race a hot one


OLDSMAR, Fla. – April in Oldsmar usually has the racing community thinking about travel plans. Horse vans on the backstretch increase in numbers. Grooms, exercise boys, and assistant trainers are packing tack and arranging housing for their summer headquarters, and the racing program slows a bit. Some of the fields are smaller, and stables that have been quiet most of the meeting start to win a race or two as the competition gets a bit easier.

But the past two seasons the final month of Tampa Bay Downs’ racing season has been anything but boring, as spirited battles for leading trainer has sparked a lot of interest among horsemen and fans.

Last season it was Kathleen O’Connell and Jamie Ness who battled for the top spot in the trainer standings through the final three weeks of the meeting, and that race literally wound up going down to the wire, as the two stables tied for the top spot with 51 wins each.

This season Ness, who has won or shared the training title the last four meetings, has been in the lead since the early days of the meeting and has continued to win races at a rate of better than 30 percent even though he also has divisions of the sprawling Midwest Thoroughbred operation at several other tracks

But as he did with the O’Connell barn last season, Ness has a challenger again. This year it’s been Gerald Bennett. After the Feb. 8 program, Ness held a 12-win lead on Bennett, but in the past nine weeks or so the margin has slowly but treadily narrowed, and the interest among racing people and the fans has increased.

Through Sunday’s racing card Ness has sent out 58 winners, three more than Bennett. With three racing programs to go it is, as they say, still a horse race. Ness has two horses in Friday and three entered for Saturday’s program while Bennett has one entered for Friday’s card and five entered for Saturday.

And the battle for the third spot is also a good one, as the late-surging Cibelli barn holds a one-win edge over the Kathleen O’ Connell barn with 25 tallies while Jorge Navarro is two wins back with 22 tallies.

◗ The rider race has turned into the Ronnie Allen Jr. show as the veteran continues to ride at a torrid pace and has moved over the 100-win mark. Through Sunday’s program, Allen had 104 wins. Even though Daniel Centeno has been sidelined with an injury since March 11th. he is still in the second spot with 79 winners, while Leandro Goncalves, who has moved on to Kentucky and Indiana, is third with 65 tallies.

◗ Lonnie Arterburn, a blue-collar kind of guy who very quietly does a good job with his stock, has been on a roll of late, with 5 winners from the last 9 horses he sent to the post.

Arterburn had a subpar meeting here last year with just three winners but has 11 so far at this meeting.and is winning at better than a 30 per cent clip.

◗ With three racing programs left before the meeting closes, Tampa’s vice president and general manager, Peter Berube, reports that the track will show increases this season in several catagories.

Ontrack handle and attendance are assured of showing an increase, as is the the average handle for all-source wagering. Berube noted the final all-source wagering total with be a record high when all the figures are compiled following the final program on May 8th.

In addition Berube noted that the average starters per race will be approximately 9.1.horses per race while there have been 18 more turf races run this season than last year.