Peace, And Bigger Purses, For Tampa Bay Meet

Tampa Bay Downs and the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association appear on course to open the 2002-03 racing season without the conflict that has plagued the Florida track in recent years.

Purses will jump 5% at Tampa Bay for the upcoming meet, and the purse for the grade III Tampa Bay Derby has been raised by $50,000 to $250,000.

"We anticipate no controversy to begin the season," Tampa Bay general manager Peter Berube said.

Track officials and the Tampa Bay HBPA have been at odds the past few years over contracts and stall allotments. The disputes have led other horsemen's groups to pull consent for Tampa Bay to import signals from the tracks at which they race.

Tampa Bay HBPA president Bob Jeffries, a trainer, did not get stalls the last two years. For the meet that begins Dec. 14, Jeffries was awarded five stalls.

"It's a change from the last couple of years," Jeffries said. "Everybody that put in for stalls got stalls. I would like to say it looks like we can get down to business, instead of arguing like we have for the last two years.

"Maybe this is a good indication they want to work with us. We want to work with them."

The current contract between horsemen and management runs through the end of the 2002-03 meet. There also is an HBPA election scheduled, which means perhaps a new board would have to negotiate the next contract.

"We've got a lot on our plate this winter," Jeffries said.

Said Linda Mills, president of the Florida HBPA, which represents horsemen at Florida's other Thoroughbred tracks, Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park: "This is a real positive move on Tampa Bay Downs' part."

Despite the turmoil, Tampa Bay concluded its 2001-02 meet with a record total daily average handle of almost $2.1 million, up from $1.8 million during the 1999-2000 season. The track averaged 9.26 starters per race even though it raced five days a week for the most part.

Margo Flynn, director of communications at Tampa Bay, said overnight purses would average $98,000 a day ($108,000 including stakes) for the upcoming meet. The track also has implemented a new handicap series for males and females on the turf course, which has gotten high marks since it was christened in 1998. The series will be for horses that have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less, and the legs will be run at graduated distances.

The Tampa Bay Derby will be run March 16 along with the $150,000 Florida Oaks (gr. III) and the $100,000 Hillsborough Handicap on the grass. The meet concludes May 4, with live racing on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March, and Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays in April and May.