TAMPA — Shortly after horses enter the paddock area, jockeys will leave with riding instructions. It is post time at Tampa Bay Downs.
The track begins its 83rd season of thoroughbred racing today, a 94-day meet that will be unprecedented and demanding. For the first time, TBD will host five graded stakes races. It also faces an economic downturn.
"It will be a challenging year," TBD spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "We've certainly made adjustments to make it more fan-friendly. We want people to come out and enjoy the races. That's always been the main thrust at Tampa Bay Downs, and it will continue to be."
The $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby remains the signature race of TBD's 26-race stakes program with a total purse of $2.76-million. But the track is still abuzz over the $225,000 Sam F. Davis recently achieving graded status, joining the $200,000 Florida Oaks, $175,000 Hillsborough, $150,000 Endeavour Breeders' Cup and Tampa Bay Derby as Grade III events.
"(Sam F. Davis being graded) helps you get good horses because they need graded money to get into the (Kentucky) Derby," racing secretary Allison De Luca said. "We have a great stakes coordinator in Duane Christo, and our staff works as hard as we can to get good horses here for those races.
"We have a tremendous (racing) surface and turf course. That helps a lot."
More than 125 jockeys and 100 trainers have arrived. Eight of the top 10 riders from last year's meet are back along with all 10 leading conditioners. The group includes jockey Daniel Centeno and trainer Jamie Ness, each a two-time defending champion who set track records last season for wins and earnings. Second-leading rider Rosemary Homeister Jr. also returns and is two shy of 2,000 career victories.
One newcomer is Pascacio ''Paco'' Lopez, considered a leading contender for an Eclipse Award as apprentice rider. Lopez will ride at TBD until a suspension for riding infractions at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens expires. He has been banned at Churchill Downs-owned tracks such as Calder through Jan. 2 but will be allowed to ride at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
Stricter guidelines for horses' androgenic anabolic steroids, drug testing and toe grabs on front feet also have been instituted at TBD.
The $65,000 Lightning City Stakes (Race 10, 4:41 p.m.), an about 5-furlong turf test for fillies and mares 3 years and older, headlines today's 11-race card. The early-line favorite is What She Said, seeking her fourth straight win in the field of 10.
GREYHOUNDS: Round 3 action in the $75,000 660-Yard Challenge is tonight at Derby Lane in Petersburg. Qualifiers are Races 6 (8:51) and 10 (10:07).
TBD reached an objective Friday afternoon by agreeing, in conjunction with the TBD Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, to have its racing signal available on advanced-deposit wagering venues Myracebet.com, Tracknet.com, Twinspires.com, Xpressbet.com and Youbet.com along with Television Games Network (TVG) and Horse Racing Television (HRTV). Details of the agreement were not disclosed.