11/26/2015 9:02AM

Tampa opens meet with full fields

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Tom Keyser
Tampa Bay Downs drew 121 entries for its 10-race opening-day card on Saturday.

The snowbirds are returning to Florida in full force for the winter, including horsemen from the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Canada who flooded the entry box for Saturday’s card at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar. The 10-race card drew 121 entries, about a dozen per race.

Peter Berube, the track’s vice president and general manager, said Tampa Bay Downs will average three turf races a day and $142,000 in overnight purses, the same level as last season. The track will race Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays before adding Sundays to the mix Dec. 20. The 90-day stand ends in earnest May 8, with one additional card June 30.

New to the wagering menu are rolling Super Hi 5’s, which require a bettor to select the first five finishers in a race in order. The bet has a $1 minimum and an 18 percent takeout rate, and if it isn’t hit, the pool carries over to the next race or the next day. The wagering menu also features a pick five with a 50-cent minimum and a 15 percent takeout.

Tampa’s stakes schedule comprises 23 races worth a track-record $2.7 million. The two biggest days once again will be Festival Preview Day on Feb. 13 and Festival Day on March 12. Festival Preview Day features the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, Grade 3 Tampa Bay, Grade 3 Endeavour, and $100,000 Suncoast Stakes, and Festival Day features the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, Grade 3 Florida Oaks, Grade 3 Hillsborough, and $100,000 Challenger Stakes, which got a $40,000 purse boost for 2016.

Jamie Ness has won or shared the training title at the last nine Tampa Bay Downs meets and figures to top the standings again this season. He went 46 for 147 at the 2014-15 Tampa meet, for an outstanding 31 percent strike rate. Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O’Connell, who were second and third in the standings with 43 and 39 wins, once again should provide his strongest competition.

Leading the jockey colony is Antonio Gallardo, a 28-year-old native of Spain who set a track record last season at Tampa with 147 winners from 579 mounts, for an impressive 25 percent strike rate. Gallardo, who is seeking his third straight riding title at Tampa after topping the standings at Presque Isle Downs for the second straight year, finished in the money with 54 percent of his mounts in Oldsmar last season.

Gallardo will be challenged by five-time Tampa title winner Daniel Centeno as well as Albin Jimenez and Fernando De La Cruz, who finished first and second this year at Indiana Grand with 108 and 97 wins. One notable absentee will be Rosemary Homeister Jr., a fixture in the local jockey colony who finished fourth last season with 42 wins. She’s taking a break from riding to be a fitness trainer in Illinois.

First post Saturday is 12:22 p.m. Eastern.