Tampa Bay Downs will begin its 92nd season of Thoroughbred racing Nov. 25 with an expanded stakes program and a focus on improving the day-to-day product.
The stakes program has undergone more growth and expansion and this season there will be 28 stakes with a total of $3.65 million in purses.
Topping the list is the $400,000 Lambolm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), one of the top preps for the Triple Crown races. Last year's winner, Tapwrit, won the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1). The 2018 Tampa Bay Derby is a Road to the Kentucky Derby points race (on a 50-20-10-5 schedule to the top four finishers).
The Tampa Bay Derby will top the richest day of racing in Tampa Bay Downs history, as the five stakes on the card will award a total of $1 million in purses on an afternoon that will also include the $200,000 Florida Oaks (G3).
Several other stakes have had their purses increased. The Endeavour (G3T) and Suncoast stakes go from $150,000 to $175,000 and the track has added four Florida-bred stakes to the program. The Florida Sire Stakes series will add the $125,000 Marion County and $125,000 City of Ocala stakes at seven furlongs Dec. 16, as well as the $100,000 Silver Charm and $100,000 Ivanavinalot stakes on May 5.
The $250,000 Sam Davis Stakes (G3) heads the Feb. 10 day of racing and the 1 1/16-mile prep for the Tampa Bay Derby will top a card that also includes the $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes (G3T) (up from $150,000), and three other stakes races.
The continued growth and expansion of the stakes program is a healthy indicator for the track's future but without casino wagering boosting its purses, Tampa Bay Downs faces challenges in its day-to-day racing.
Last year Tampa averaged 8.25 horses per race, which is strong but down from the 8.54 of the previous meeting. Margo Flynn, Tampa's vice president of marketing and publicity and a Thoroughbred horse owner herself, said the challenges facing Tampa are the same ones faced by tracks throughout the country.
"If you look at tracks around the country, from New York to California, you'll see smaller fields. It's a problem that every track faces. With decreased foal production there is an increasing demand for horses," Flynn said. "We've tweaked the racing program in some spots we hope will result in more horses being entered. And, with one of the safest main tracks in the country to train over, we feel horses who come here and train stay sounder and more able to run than anywhere in the country."
Flynn noted that several stables from South Florida are coming to Tampa for the first time, and some new stables have arrived from other parts of North America.
Tampa has made several improvements for fans, including a new high-definition infield video board, improved mobile services, and a Spanish-speaking broadcaster.
"We're confident we can give the fans programs that include competitive racing, complemented by the largest number of stakes in the track's history," Flynn said. "Luis Ocasio, a racing analyst from Puerto Rico, will be joining us this season. He is very popular and will be part of our podcasts and in-house broadcasts."
On the track Gerald Bennett, who won the training title last season, returns with a strong stable that features a mix of talented young runners and established stars, topped by R Angel Katelyn, a six-time winner from 11 starts with earnings of $319,820.
Jamie Ness, who has either won or shared the training title six times, won't be returning. Ness purchased a farm in Maryland and with his children approaching school age, the trainer made a decision to cut down on travel.
New outfits will be on the scene, however, topped by 30 horses trained by Michael Stidham.
On the jockey side, Antonio Gallardo, who won 135 races to run away with the riding title two seasons ago, will be back at Tampa this season. Daniel Centeno will be back to defend his title and will be joined by Jose Ferrer, who is coming back from serious injuries suffered in a spill at Delaware Park this summer, and Pablo Morales, who comes into this meet off a dominating performance as leading rider at Presque Isle Downs, where he won 124 races.