OLDSMAR — For trainers Dale Bennett and Monte Thomas, it is nice to be back.
Bennett spent the past two winters away from Tampa Bay Downs. Thomas stopped training thoroughbreds for more than a decade.
Both horsemen shared the spotlight on a sun-splashed Saturday at the Downs.
Bennett's Cool Cowboy captured the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes, and the Thomas-conditioned My Sweet Dove won the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes on Cotillion Festival Day, a card focusing on 2-year-olds.
"I'm saddling a horse (while wearing) shorts in a stakes, so it's good to be back," said Bennett, who missed the 2012 meet because of a ban involving Illinois stock due to a horse virus. "You can't beat the weather."
Bennett, 41, won his first Downs stakes since 2007 (Unfolding Wish in the Sandpiper) as Cool Cowboy defeated seven rivals under jockey Eduardo Perez. The son of multiple-Grade I winner Kodiak Kowboy was fractious behind the gate before the start. But he broke alertly and led throughout with fractions of 21.67 and 45.05 seconds. The 1-2 favorite finished 3½ lengths in front of Early Entry. The winning time for 6 furlongs on the main track was 1 minute, 11.13 seconds.
"He's fast. … You just have to let him run his race," Bennett said.
It was the third victory from five starts for Cool Cowboy, a Kentucky-bred who raised his career earnings to $80,335 with the $30,000 paycheck for owner Savoy Stable.
Thomas, 69, got his first stakes win at the Downs when white-hot jockey Fernando De La Cruz rode My Sweet Dove ($13) to a half-length victory over Todd Pletcher trainee and 3-5 favorite Enquete. My Sweet Dove, coming off a $43,000 maiden-claiming victory Nov. 10 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, won in gate-to-wire style. The Florida-bred filly clocked 6 furlongs in 1:11.42 after early fractions of 22.15 and 45.47.
"Nobody came (at me), and I just saved her for the stretch," said De La Cruz, who won three races on the program and has won eight on the past three, including his 1,000th.
Thomas used to race at Charles Town in West Virginia, but he stopped training in 1986 and moved with his wife, Cathy, to Arcadia, where they got involved with paint horses. Cathy said they had 53 paint horses ready to run at Haines City, where a track was being proposed. But when the track wasn't built, the Thomases sold their stock, moved to Citra in Marion County and returned to thoroughbreds.
Monte Thomas now has 322 career wins. My Sweet Dove's sire, Hello Broadway, stands at the Thomases' farm. My Sweet Dove earned $60,000 to increase her earnings to $92,800 for owner-breeder Peter Lawson. It was her second win from three starts.
"They left (My Sweet Dove) alone (down the backstretch), and she's a long filly, and you got to let her stretch her head out," Thomas said. "If you're going to let her do that, she's going to gallop for a long time."