For the second meeting in a row, Tampa Bay Downs will run 25 stakes worth $2,595,000. The lucrative added-money slate is highlighted by the 33rd edition of the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, a 1 1/16-mile showcase for three-year-old Triple Crown candidates, on March 9.
The Tampa Bay Derby is one of five graded stakes during the upcoming season. Tampa Bay Downs Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube expects leading horsemen to flock to the track in search of earnings and prestige while basking in the sunshine, warmth and friendliness the track and surrounding area offer.
"The growth of our stakes program over the years is a source of pride for everyone involved," Berube said. "Keeping our stakes schedule and purses intact during a challenging economic period is a major accomplishment, and we think our fans will appreciate everyone's efforts because they get to watch and wager on top-quality Thoroughbred racing."
Stall applications for the 2012-13 season are due Monday. The barn area opens November 7.
The Tampa Bay Derby -- which has produced two of the past six winners of the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010) -- is the centerpiece of the track's annual Festival Day extravaganza, which includes the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the turf for older fillies and mares; and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at one mile and 40 yards for three-year-old fillies.
The first three finishers in the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby have all enjoyed additional stakes success this year. While the winner, Prospective, added the Victoria Park Stakes at Woodbine and Grade 3 Ohio Derby to his ledger, runner-up Golden Ticket finished in a dead-heat with Alpha in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga.
Cozzetti, the third-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher, won the Grade 3 American Derby on the turf at Arlington Park.
Horsemen with Tampa Bay Derby aspirations may target opening day as a stepping stone. Tampa Bay Downs is offering a pair of $75,000, six-furlong stakes for two-year-olds on its December 1 Cotillion Festival Day card: the Inaugural Stakes and the Sandpiper Stakes, the latter for juvenile fillies.
The next step toward Festival Day comes January 12, when newly-turned three-year-olds vie in the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at seven furlongs and three-year-old fillies compete in the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes, also at seven furlongs.
Prospective began his 2012 campaign with a stirring, come-from-behind victory in the Pasco Stakes.
Tampa Bay Downs' path to the Triple Crown then resumes February 2 -- Festival Preview Day -- which is the track's second-richest day on the 91-day racing calendar. The card is headed by the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile showcase for three-year-olds. The Davis has been won in recent years by such notables as Bluegrass Cat (2006), Any Given Saturday (2007) and General Quarters (2009).
Also on the February 2 lineup are the Endeavour Stakes, a Grade 3, $150,000 race at 1 1/16 miles on the turf for older fillies and mares, and the $150,000 Florida Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on the turf for three-year-old fillies.
The five-year-old mare Zagora, a Grade 1 winner in 2011, won both the 2012 Endeavour and Hillsborough and has since won the Grade 3 Gallorette at Pimlico and the Grade 2 Ballston Spa at Saratoga en route to a possible run at year-end turf female honors.
The 2012 Florida Oaks, meanwhile, was won by Dixie Strike, who has added the Grade 3 Selene Stakes at Woodbine and the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie against males to her collection of added-money hardware.
The other graded race on the Tampa Bay Downs stakes calendar will be conducted February 16. The Grade 3, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for four-year-olds and upward at 1 1/16 miles on the turf usually produces a hair-raising finish, which certainly was the case last season when Roman Tiger got through on the rail to beat El Commodore by a nostril.
On April 6, Tampa Bay Downs will offer $450,000 in total stakes purses on its annual Florida Cup Day card, a set of six races (all worth $75,000) for registered Florida-breds. Three races will be run on the main dirt track and three on the turf.
Of the 25 scheduled stakes during the 2012-13 meeting, nine will be run on the turf course, judged by many horsemen to be among the top grass courses in North America. The turf stakes slate begins January 5 with the $75,000 Turf Dash at five furlongs for horses three-and-upward.
The biggest success story to emerge from last season's Tampa Bay Downs stakes program is four-year-old colt Fort Larned, bred and owned by Janis R. Whitham and trained by Ian Wilkes.
Since winning the $60,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in March, Fort Larned has developed into one of the top handicap horses in the country, with victories in the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream, the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap and the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga.
The 2013 Challenger will be run March 2 at a distance of 1 1/16 miles, and handicappers will be alert for the possible emergence of another Fort Larned.
Although every stakes returns from the 2011-12 season, several have been repositioned on the schedule to maximize the opportunity for Florida-based horsemen to take advantage of added-money offerings at both Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park.
Last season's opening day feature, the $75,000 Lightning City Stakes at five furlongs on the turf for fillies and mares three-and-upward, will be run January 26. The $60,000 Pelican Stakes, at six furlongs on the main track, has been moved from its traditional January slot to December 8. Most of the other date changes are minor.
Click here to view the complete stakes schedule.