OLDSMAR — As dawn breaks today, a new decade of thoroughbred racing launches at Tampa Bay Downs. The Oldsmar oval's 84th season, a 91-day meet that runs through May 2, 2010, begins with infectious enthusiasm after the previous era ended with a couple of high-fives.
Five graded races and five Downs graduates in the 135th Kentucky Derby — both track records — made the 2008-09 meet an Oldsmar masterpiece. It culminated a sensational six-year stretch, with the Downs sending 18 runners to the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. The group included all six Tampa Bay Derby winners and four Sam F. Davis champions since 2004. Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense won the Louisville, Ky., classic in 2007.
Horsemen have taken notice. All 1,398 stalls at the Downs are accounted for. Among those stabled are the past two Tampa Bay Derby winners: Musket Man (third in this year's Kentucky Derby) and Big Truck, both with trainer Derek Ryan.
More than 100 trainers and jockeys begin the meet, headed by nine of the top 10 from last season's standings. Trainer Jamie Ness (third nationally with 249 wins) and rider Daniel Centeno (18th, 223) each seek their fourth consecutive Downs titles.
Notable newcomers include conditioners Wayne Catalano and Chris Block, and rider Inez Karlsson, all from Illinois. Catalano saddled winner She Be Wild in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in November, and captured the 2008 Hillsborough and Endeavour with Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Dreaming of Anna. Block won the 2006 Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup with Fort Prado, a $1 million earner retired to stud three weeks ago. Karlsson was the 2008 Eclipse Award runnerup for apprentice jockey.
"There's an overwhelming enthusiasm to be a part of the year meet coming from owners and trainers," track spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "We're hoping that is going to translate to the general population. The local people seem to be anticipating a great season, (and) we're hoping to be able to offer that for them."
The Tampa Bay Derby, Oldsmar's richest race at $300,000, tops a 25-stakes program totaling $2,550,000. It is one of five Grade III races and the feature on Festival Day (March 13). The Tampa Bay Derby and its prep, $225,000 Sam F. Davis on Festival Preview Day (Feb. 13), reach 30-year milestones this season.
Today begins with Breakfast at the Downs from 8-10 a.m. in the picnic pavilion area, where fans can meet trainers and other horsemen.
The 11-race card is headed by the $65,000 Lightning City Stakes (Race 9, 4:07 p.m.), a 5-furlong turf sprint for fillies and mares 3 years and older. Taletobetold is the early line 7-2 favorite among 10 entries. First post is 12:25 p.m.
GREYHOUNDS: Derby Lane holds third-round action in the $75,000 660-Yard Challenge tonight (Races 6 and 10) at St. Petersburg.