12/17/2002 1:00AM

Tampa gets in meet opener


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Tampa Bay Downs, which had its scheduled opening weekend washed out, finally began its 2002-2003 racing season under blue skies Tuesday.

A crowd of 2,449 was on hand for the 11-race opening-day program, wagering $251,692 at the track. The all-sources handle on the card totaled $2,507,874.

The crowd saw Awesome of Course, making his first start since finishing fourth in the Saratoga Special last summer, survive a long stretch duel and claim of foul to post a length victory in the $50,000 Inaugural Stakes.

Awesome of Course, ridden by Jesus Castanon, chased pacesetter Hummel through an opening quarter-mile of 22.19 seconds and half-mile of 45.67 before rallying off the turn to challenge for the lead.

After drifting in slightly in midstretch, Awesome of Course was straightened by Castanon and moved to a short lead, then held off Run for You, with Penthouse Promise another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Battle Tank, the favorite, finished fifth. Felix Ortiz, rider of Hummel, claimed foul against the winner for interference in the stretch but the stewards disallowed that claim.

Awesome of Course ($10.60) covered the six furlongs in 1:11.99 over a fast track. The win was his third victory from six races, and the $30,000 winner's share ran his earnings to $92,210.