Tampa Bay Downs opens 87th season with card devoted to juveniles

Tampa Bay Downs launches its 87th season with when the gates open Saturday on Lambholm South Cotillion Festival Day, with a full card of two-year-old races celebrating the track's heritage of developing future equine stars.

Opening Day festivities begin at 8 a.m. (EST) in the Picnic Pavilion Area with the always-popular Breakfast Buffet, which is $6.95 and includes free grandstand admission, a racing program and a chance to watch horses work out and meet trainers and jockeys (tickets must be purchased beforehand in the track's general office).

Saturday's card is highlighted by a pair of $75,000, six-furlong stakes for two-year-olds: the 28th running of the Inaugural Stakes for colts and geldings and the 34th edition of the Sandpiper Stakes for fillies. Brave Dave and Crumb, both victorious in stakes competition three weeks ago in Miami, headline the two contests.

Brave Dave, a Florida-bred son of Put It Back who has already won $226,100 in his brief career, will face five rivals in the Inaugural. His November 10 victory in the restricted Jack Price Juvenile Stakes at Calder was his third stakes triumph, including a score in the Grade 3 Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park in New Jersey on September 2.

Owned by David Melin and Laurie Plesa and trained by Laurie's husband, Eddie Plesa Jr., Brave Dave will be ridden in the six-furlong Inaugural by Angel Serpa, the third-leading jockey last season at Tampa Bay Downs.

Brave Dave's rivals include unbeaten gelding Purple Egg, trained by Jane Cibelli and ridden by Roberto Alvarado Jr., and improving gelding Capital City, trained by David Fawkes and ridden by Juan Leyva.

Crumb, a filly who has never finished out of the money in four career starts, is the probable favorite for the Sandpiper Stakes, also at six furlongs. Owned by Eric Wirth and trained by Larry Bates, the dark bay daughter of Graeme Hall won the state-bred Joe O'Farrell Juvenile Fillies Stakes on November 10 at Calder. Leyva has been named to ride Crumb.

The eight-horse field for the Sandpiper also includes the Fawkes-trained Vitameta, who has two victories sandwiched around a fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga, and Kirk Ziadie-trained runner R Free Roll, a two-time winner bred and co-owned by Bradenton, Florida-based masonry executive Richard Averill.

Following a successful 2011-12 season and the success of several of its graduates and horsemen in the recent Breeders' Cup, Tampa Bay Downs is riding a wave of momentum that has trainers, jockeys and fans in a "can't-wait" mood for opening day's 12:35 p.m. first-race post time.

"We're thrilled to start a new season and confident our racing product will continue to attract nationwide attention and gain new fans for our sport," track Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube said.

"By starting with a card devoted to two-year-olds -- many bred in Florida -- we are able to showcase the state's robust breeding industry and build excitement for our three-year-old program, which is the centerpiece of our meeting every year."

Perennial leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness returns to the track on Florida's west coast, seeking an unprecedented seventh consecutive Tampa Bay Downs title (he tied with Kathleen O'Connell for the 2009-10 crown and again with Gerald Bennett two years ago). Ness saddled a track-record 79 winners last season.

With 362 winners in 2012 through November 20, Ness is close to nailing down his first national wins title. But his presence hasn't scared off the likes of established conditioners such as Bennett, O'Connell, Jorge Navarro, Jane Cibelli, Leigh Delacour, Bernell Rhone, Thomas Proctor and Joan Scott from mounting their own assaults on the top spot.

Most of the top jockeys from the 2011-12 season also are returning, including runner-up Ronnie Allen Jr., who has won four Tampa Bay Downs riding titles; Daniel Centeno, who won four consecutive track titles from 2006-10; rising star Angel Serpa, third last season with 72 victories; and veteran Scott Spieth, who claimed career victory No. 4,000 here last season.

Throw in such established journeymen as Willie Martinez, who won the recent Breeders' Cup Sprint on Trinniberg, plus Dean Butler, Daniel Coa and Ricardo Feliciano, and it seems certain the jockeys race will again go down to the final weeks of the meeting.

The 91-day meeting, which runs through May 5, is highlighted by the track's annual Festival Day on March 9. That lucrative card features the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for three-year-olds, which has been a stepping stone to Kentucky Derby glory two of the past six years, along with the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf for fillies and mares and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Breakfast Buffet attendees are encouraged to remain for a 10 a.m. handicapping seminar featuring Peter Mallett, author of the annual "Betting Tampa Bay Downs" guides and co-author of "Crushing the Cup," a yearly handicapping guide to the Breeders' Cup.

In addition to the established lunch and dining areas throughout the facility, Tampa Bay Downs is adding a barbecue-style food truck from Di Legge's Old City Grill at the north end of the grandstand.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas and Easter for simulcast wagering. For additional information, please visit tampabaydowns.com.

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