OLDSMAR — Tampa Bay Downs is a launching pad for careers and a landing site for Kentucky Derby winners.
Jockey Daniel Centeno and trainer Jamie Ness exchanged obscurity for prosperity with current streaks of four straight track championships each. Super Saver (2010) and Street Sense ('07) prepped at Oldsmar before becoming Derby darlings.
The Downs' 85th season of thoroughbred racing blasts off today, fueled with its highest graded and richest race in history. The 91-day meet runs through May 8.
Last week, track vice president and general manager Peter Berube learned the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby had attained Grade II status. The track's signature race, formerly Grade III, highlights Festival Day, March 12. The Tampa Bay Derby is one of several possible races targeted for the 3-year-old debut of Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion Uncle Mo, an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
The $125,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, previously the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup, is a new graded event. It is one of four Grade III races on the 25-race stakes program, which totals $2,420,000. The Tampa Bay Stakes is March 19. Other Grade III races: $225,000 Sam F. Davis and $125,000 Endeavour, both Feb. 12, and the $150,000 Hillsborough on March 12. The $125,000 Florida Oaks lost Grade III status this season and is Feb. 12.
Racing secretary Allison De Luca returns, joined by assistant Stanley Shina and new stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawzyk. The $75,000 Lightning City (Race 9, 4:16 p.m.), a 5-furlong turf stakes for fillies and mares 3 years and upward, tops today's 11-race card. First post is 12:25.
Centeno and Ness have flourished since winning their first career titles at the Downs. Centeno, 38, ranks ninth nationally this year in wins with 258. Ness, 36, is second in the country with 280. Since 2006, Centeno and Ness have combined for 1,713 victories and $28,370,808 in earnings. They had fewer than 330 wins and $3 million in earnings between them upon their Downs arrivals in the mid 2000s.
Ness' main client is Midwest Thoroughbreds, last year's top Downs owner. Midwest leads the nation in wins with 300 and is third in earnings at $4,078,097.
"My chances (of winning that first title) were a million to one," said Ness, who shared the Downs crown last season with Kathleen O'Connell. "I was just trying to make a living. Before I made that one good claim, Lookinforthesecret (a seven-time stakes winner purchased in 2007), nobody knew who I was. It put me on the map and helped me pick up Midwest.
"If I would have won my first title somewhere else, it wouldn't have had the meaning nationally like it did at Tampa. Tampa is very well recognized … all over the country. If you can do good at Tampa, you can hold your own everywhere else."
DOGS: The $75,000 660-Yard Challenge resumes tonight in Races 6 and 10 at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.