ST. PETERSBURG — The DNA in stakes-winning greyhounds includes luck and timing.
Kennel owner Jim Abernathy believes that. So does Marsella Racing manager-trainer John Farmer. They are not alone.
Fifteen of the 16 kennels at Derby Lane are looking for that combination in the $50,000 Fall Sprint Stakes, which begins tonight. The 550-yard event is the track's first stakes race of the season, part of an 11-race, $375,000 stakes program.
"(Winning a stakes race) takes some of the pressure off and lets you breathe a little easier," Abernathy said. "There are five or six (major) shots a year. You just hope whenever those opportunities come up, you're lucky enough to get a piece of them.
"You've got to have the right dog at the right time."
The Fall Sprint is the first stakes race managed by new director of racing Les Robison. Thirty-two greyhounds begin the first of four qualifying rounds in Races 4, 6, 8 and 10. The field will be reduced to 16 Wednesday night for the final two qualifiers. Eight dogs with the most cumulative points advance to the Oct. 5 final. Newcomer Burk Greyhounds is the only kennel without a stakes entry. Post time for tonight's 15-race card is 7:30.
Abernathy has a main threat in Pj Fresno, one of the track's top winners.
Marsella is searching for its first stakes victory since joining Derby Lane 14 months ago. The kennel is led by Rams Contango, who has reached the final in one of three previous stakes appearances (fifth in the $20,000 Gold Trophy Juvenile on May 18).
"Any time he gets into trouble, he just keeps coming," Farmer said. "It would be great to win a stakes. … Our kennel is getting a lot stronger, so I expect to have a lot better shot in the future."
Two-time defending meet wins leader Venus Espinosa, who has 70 lifetime victories, will attempt to defend his title for Patriot. Craigie I Am Jak, the 2011 Fall Sprint winner who lost last year by a neck, also returns for Campbell Greyhound Racing.
"Jak has lost a step, but you never know what can happen," kennel manager-trainer James Campbell said.
Many of the track's wins leaders are entered: Budz Crosby (Alderson), Golden Surf (D'Arcy), Flying Sebastian and Ww Soda Jerk (both for Red Oak), and Craigie Beck and Jack's Cruze (both for Cal Holland).
"The best dog usually doesn't win," Abernathy said. "You can't miss your break. … You can't get hit in the turn. There are just so many variables that go into winning a stakes race."
Last year, only one of 11 favorites won in stakes finals.