12/10/2009 12:00AM

Tampa looks to recapture momentum

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - For much of the last decade, business at Tampa Bay Downs has been on the upswing. But last year, with the economy struggling, betting slipped about 2.5 percent to $3.9 million a day. When the track begins its 84th season Saturday, several changes will be in place that should help Tampa regain its momentum.

This year's Tampa season will be slightly shorter, offering a new racing schedule and added betting options. Fans will notice another change even before they get out of their vehicles.

Traffic congestion on Race Track Road, a two-lane thoroughfare in the middle of this fast-growing area of suburban Tampa, has been a problem in recent years. The situation was exacerbated on racing days when patrons attempted to exit the track without the aid of any traffic signals.

Race Track Road has now been widened to four lanes and rerouted around the Tampa Bay Downs property. There are three separate entrances to the track and two traffic signals have been added.

The racing schedule has been simplified this meet and will feature live racing Wednesday through Sunday after the first of the year. The schedule will be in effect until April, when racing will scale back to a four-day week with Thursdays dark.

Tampa Bay Downs will again offer free grandstand admission on weekdays and free parking every day. In addition, fans who enjoy a cold beer while making their selections will be pleased to find that the track will offer $1.25 draft beer between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on all weekday programs.

Fifty-cent pick fours and trifectas have been added to the betting menu, and the takeout has been lowered on exactas (now 20.5 percent), and picks threes, pick fours, the super high five, and the pick six (all 19 percent).

On the racing scene, the track has cut back from 94 to 91 racing dates, with the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby and its prep race, the Grade 3, $225,000 Sam F. Davis, again topping the stakes schedule. The meet's other three graded stakes - the $175,000 Florida Oaks, $150,000 Hillsborough, and $125,000 Endeavour - have each had their purse trimmed $25,000 this season.

The Tampa Bay Derby continued to build its reputation as a viable prep for the Triple Crown races when last year's winner, Musket Man, went on finish third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Musket Man's trainer, Derek Ryan, will be back again this season with 17 horses, including Musket Man and the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, who has not raced since November 2008.

A number of new trainers have been allotted stalls for the upcoming meeting, including Wayne Catalano and Rusty Arnold. Other new trainers are Alan Seewald, a regular on the New Jersey circuit, Tony Reinstedler, and Eric Reed.

Jamie Ness will be seeking his fourth straight Tampa training title. Ness also topped this year's trainer standings at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania with 71 wins. War Fighter and Castles in the Sky, who won the Turf Dash here last season, are a couple of his top horses that will be based here.

"War Fighter was slow to get his act together but has gotten better and better with time," Ness said. "We ran him in the Ohio Derby last out and he ran a strong second. We feel he'll be a force this winter.

"Castles in the Sky, who raced so well sprinting last year, is coming back as well."

Jockey Daniel Centeno will be back to defend his title, following a strong summer at Monmouth where he won 57 races. Centeno will be going for his fourth straight riding title after winning 138 races here last season, 144 in 2007-2008, and 125 in 2006-2007.

Ronnie Allen Jr. also will be back. Allen finished third with 85 winners last year, one behind Rosemary Homeister Jr.

The opening-day feature is the ninth race, the $65,000 Lightning City Stakes at five furlongs on the turf. Easy Ashley, winner of three of six outings this season, moves into stakes company for the first time.

Easy Ashley, from the powerful Wesley Ward barn, led into the late stages of her last start in a tough optional claiming race at six furlongs on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita on Oct. 22. She finished third by a length in that race, her first start since August.

Prior to that, she led throughout a turf sprint at Saratoga going 5 1/2 furlongs and also posted turf wins against high-priced claiming sprinters at Churchill and in a starter allowance at Indiana Downs.

Charlie Papa, who was third, beaten just a neck, in last year's renewal of the Lightning City, and Taletobetold, who was fourth, top the challengers, along with Mohegan Sky, who is winless in eight starts in 2009 but who has been keeping top company for most of the season.

In the 10th race on the 11-race card, Rock Candy will make her first start since finishing third here in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks when she meets top sprinters Taylor Madison and Dee's Rose in an open allowance sprint at six furlongs.

TAMPA BAY DOWNS AT A GLANCE

* Racing schedule: 91 days; Saturday through May 2; dark Mondays and Tuesdays; Thursdays dropped in April; no racing on Dec 13, 20, 24, 25, and April 4

* Post time: 12:25 p.m. daily; noon post on March 13, 2010, Tampa Bay Derby Day, and Kentucky Derby Day, May 2, 2010

* Admissions: Free grandstand admission on weekdays; weekends, $2; clubhouse, $3.

* Seating: Clubhouse carrels, $3; Sports Gallery, $3

* Parking: General, free; valet, $5

* Location: 11225 Racetrack Road, Tampa, Fla., 33626; eight miles from Tampa International Airport

* Simulcasting: Daily except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010

* Phone: (813) 855-4401

* Internet: