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Changes at Tampa Bay Downs raise spirits ahead of 87th season

OLDSMAR — More than 200 days ago, four-time leading jockey Ronnie Allen Jr. closed out the Tampa Bay Downs 2011-12 meet with a win aboard Senor Habanero.

The Oldsmar thoroughbred track's 87th season begins Dec. 1 with Allen and other familiar horsemen back for the 91-day meet.

After a challenging year, vice president and general manager Peter Berube has made several tweaks, including a four-day racing schedule most weeks. The majority of races will be on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We hope the change in schedule and the enthusiasm of the horsemen will make for a promising meet," Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "The goal is to try to improve over last season."

Led by Jamie Ness, the track's six-time defending champion and the nation's wins leader, all top 10 trainers are returning. Three Breeders' Cup-winning trainers have stalls: William "Buff" Bradley, Tom Proctor and Ian Wilkes.

New conditioners include Alan Benning and Bill Kaplan (both from Miami), Jena Antonucci (New York), Martin Drexler (Canada) and Tim Hamm, who tied Ness for second-leading trainer at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa. Olga Nowak and Bobby Raymond are among the conditioners from Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass.

Midwest Thoroughbreds, a Ness client, goes for its fourth consecutive owner crown. The Illinois outfit ranks first nationally in victories and finished second to Ken and Sarah Ramsey in 2011 Eclipse Award voting for owner.

The jockey colony is solid with the returns of Allen, four-time track wins leader Daniel Centeno and Willie Martinez, a former Downs champion who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Nov. 3 with Trinniberg.

Defending champion Leandro Goncalves isn't returning; he has opted to ride at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. One newcomer is Ryan Curatolo (New York), who was second to Kyle Frey in 2011 Eclipse Award voting for apprentice rider.

"We've had a lot of interest from people coming from all over … yet again — western Canada, eastern Canada and right here in Florida," Flynn said. "People have come from far and wide to enjoy the track surfaces that we have."

Opening day also is Cotillion Day, a card featuring 2-year-olds only. There will be two $75,000 stakes races at 6 furlongs: the Inaugural and the Sandpiper (for fillies). They kick off a 25-race stakes program totaling $2,595,000. A breakfast that allows patrons to mingle with jockeys and trainers is from 8 to 10 that morning in the track pavilion near the paddock.

Cotillion Day is part of a major day of horse racing in the state. Gulfstream Park also opens its meet that afternoon, with the Hallandale Beach site hosting the 14th annual Claiming Crown, a national event for claiming horses that have started under tags of $7,500 or less to $35,000 since Jan. 1, 2011.

Changes at Tampa Bay Downs raise spirits ahead of 87th season 11/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 9:30pm]
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