02/15/2003 1:00AM

Teamwork makes Florida Cup fly

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OLDSMAR Fla. - A new chapter in the relationship between Florida horsemen and management at Tampa Bay Downs will take place April 6 when Florida-breds will take center stage in a series of six races collectively worth $500,000 in purse money.

Florida Cup Day became a reality through an agreement among Tampa Bay Downs management, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners Association, and the local chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The mere fact that these groups could work in harmony to put together such a day is as encouraging as anything else. There have been bumps in the road in the past between track management here and the local horsemen, so the ability of these groups to work together could make the Florida Cup a special afternoon in more ways than one.

Don Rice is as well qualified as anyone to comment on the Florida Cup. He has been the leading trainer here six times, he set a record for races won en route to his latest title last season, and he's on top of the standings again this season. But more importantly, Rice is a Florida horseman through and through. He has a home in Ocala, his family has a number of Florida-breds either on the farm or in training, and he has been one of the voices of reason among local horsemen during some periods of acrimonious feelings between management and horsemen's representatives. Now that those times are in the past, Rice is enthused about the chance for Florida-breds to shine.

"I think it's a super idea, super for the horsemen, and super for the track as well," Rice said. "If you go to just about any other state in the country they write statebred races, races restricted to horses bred in that state. Florida is one of the few states that doesn't do that. We do have purse incentives but to have the chance to race with other statebreds is an exciting prospect."

Burning Roma takes to turf

Burning Roma ($12.60) answered the question about his ability to handle turf with a flourish here Saturday as he dueled for the lead for more than six furlongs then pulled away with vigor through the stretch to post an authoritative five-length victory in the $100,000 Tampa Bay Downs Breeders' Cup Stakes.

Ridden with confidence by Jesus Castanon, Burning Roma disputed the pace with Tour of the Cat through an opening six furlongs of 1:12.56 over a course listed as "firm." When he was called upon in the stretch, responded with a burst of speed and drew away from his field while under mild encouragement.

Tour of the Cat held off a host of runners for the place with First Lieutenant a nose farther back and another nose in front of the second choice, Thefull Circle.

* Management announced the second purse increase in the past

30 days. Effective Thursday, purses will be increased an additional 5 percent. This follows a 6 percent increase that went into effect on

Jan. 30. A 23 percent increase in simulcast wagering that has brought the daily simulcast average handle to $2.4 million, resulted in the increase, which now brings the overnight purse schedule to $105,500.