ST. PETERSBURG — Lester Raines used to transport the best pups he purchased at National Greyhound Association auctions to Derby Lane.
Not any longer.
West Virginia racinos at Tri-State Racetrack in Nitro and Wheeling Island generate higher purses with slots and table games, so Raines puts his top dogs at the more lucrative tracks. The remaining ones are sent to places such as Derby Lane.
"Back in the old days, we used to get pretty much the cream of the crop here," said Jeanne Lesperance, who along with husband Ken manages Lester Raines Kennel's Derby Lane operation. "But now with the casino bookings paying so well, we're getting the lower portion of the dogs."
The Lesperances are eager for the 69th annual $20,000 Gold Trophy Juvenile Stakes to begin tonight. It has been a while since they have had one of the most experienced dogs in a stakes, as is the case with Craigie Mr Venus.
"It's unusual for us to have a seasoned one going in because we generally have real young ones," Jeanne said. "It would be really exciting right now (to win) considering all the casino track bookings that Lester has."
The Gold Trophy is a 550-yard event. Thirty-two dogs who won their maiden races at the current meet start qualifying tonight and Wednesday, all in Races 4, 6, 8 and 10. Using an accumulative points system based on performance (16 for first to zero for eighth), the top 16 greyhounds continue into the next two rounds May 17 and 21. The eight dogs with the most points advance to the final May 24. The winner earns $9,000.
Derby Lane's fourth-oldest stakes has been a barometer for greyhounds. Three of the past seven winners — Brady Thomas (2006), Flying Newport (2003) and Courageous Nicky (2001)— were on All-America first or second teams. Gold Trophy finalists also have achieved All-America status, including Lester Raines' Fortress Of Gold, who lost to kennelmate Ellen Ann in 1996.
"A really, really nice dog will show (All-America) potential from a young age," Jeanne said. "It doesn't even necessarily have to be the dog that wins it. Making the final can be a big thing."
Craigie Mr Venus will be joined by kennelmates Designer Style and Designer Angel. Craigie Mr Venus is second in starts (46) and tied for most wins (12).
"Craigie Mr Venus has got some early speed, but he's not short," Jeanne said. "He doesn't tend to go to the front a whole lot. If he can clear the turn second, third or fourth, he's good to go. Designer Style is the opposite. She's got a ton of early speed. She's really come a long way. Angel has been running three-eighths (of a mile)."
Lester Raines is trying to become the first Derby Lane kennel to win a stakes for the third consecutive year. It captured the 2007 Puppy Preview with In Your Eye and the 2006 Night of Stars XVII with Solitary Demon.
McAllister Kennels, which has 10 stakes wins since 2007, is represented by Flyin Home Depot, Flying Regent (12 wins) and Flying Xylitol.
Lester Raines ranks 10th among 18 active kennels in track wins. It is receiving 16 graded dogs from Jacksonville today.
schedule change: Beginning June 2, Derby Lane's Monday matinee performances will be eliminated with Monday evening performances remaining intact. Simulcast wagering and poker will not be affected.
"Monday matinee is our least-wagered performance," spokeswoman Vera Filipelli said.
Also, the Derby Club will close after tonight.
Around the tracks: Derby Lane's Kay Buffalo Bill starts from the No. 5 box tonight in the final of the $30,000 Hollywoodian Stakes (Race 12, 10:40) at Mardi Gras Racetrack in Hallandale Beach. … Derby Lane's Ballet Lady, Diligent and Van's Escalade race Monday in the third qualifying round of the $85,000 Palm Beach (Kennel Club) Grand Classic at West Palm Beach. … Tampa Bay Downs' two-time leading trainer, Jamie Ness, continued his winning thoroughbred ways at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., where trainee Tytus won the $50,000 Shot of Gold Stakes on May 3.