OLDSMAR — So far, so good for Tampa Bay Downs.
With one day remaining in its 2012-13 season, the Downs has enjoyed a successful meet. After Sunday's program, the Downs is taking an eight-week break before officially closing its 87th season of thoroughbred racing June 30.
"(The meet) has been interesting," said Downs vice president and general manager Peter Berube, who celebrated his 50th birthday Friday. "Officially we won't be releasing any figures until after the June 30 program. But attendance and handle are up. We've experienced a growth in the off-track handle (wagering on the Downs product nationally) that has led to a successful meet. Attendance is up, but it's still a tough economy."
Berube said the Downs will hold two eight-race programs on June 30 and July 1, the latter one kicking off its 2013-14 season. Many of the horses for those cards are expected to come from Ocala and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. After that, there will be no live racing until Dec. 7.
The meet has had its ups and downs. The apex came Saturday when 10,311 patrons attended the Kentucky Derby simulcast featuring the top three Tampa Bay Derby finishers: Verrazano, Java's War and Sam F. Davis winner Falling Sky. The Grade II Tampa Bay Derby is one of a record six graded stakes races for the Downs. Another plus has been the field size, which has had only a fractional drop this year, to an average 8.3 horses per race.
Among the issues Berube has had to deal with are the ban of all horses from Hawthorne Race Course for the meet because of a virus outbreak at the Cicero, Ill., track, and the ban of Dr. Orlando Paraliticci, a private veterinarian accused of giving treatment not allowed on race day to a horse near the barn of trainer Jane Cibelli in February. Berube said the state investigation into that matter is ongoing.
Individual champions have been crowned. Jockey Daniel Centeno picked up his fifth riding title with 90 victories thus far. He also is first in purse earnings with $1,344,255.
Jamie Ness is the leading trainer for the seventh consecutive season with 46 wins. His client, Midwest Thoroughbreds, is the top owner for the fourth year in a row, also with 46 victories. Ricardo Mejias is the top apprentice jockey with 20 wins.
Kathleen O'Connell, a two-time Downs training champion who earned her 1,500th career win during the meet, has overtaken Ness as the purse earnings leader, $493,769 to $493,469. Stakes winner Wild About Chrome is unbeaten in five starts to lead horses in victories for trainer James McCullough and former conditioner Ness.