OLDSMAR — After delivering last month at the Breeders' Cup World Championships, Tampa Bay Downs gives birth today to its 87th season of thoroughbred racing.
The opener is Cotillion Festival Day, a 10-race card for 2-year-olds only. Co-featured are a pair of $75,000 stakes, the Inaugural (Race 4, 2:02 p.m.) and the Sandpiper (Race 7, 3:26).
"Opening day is really exciting," said Jane Cibelli, one of the Downs' leading trainers and a back-to-back winner of the Monmouth Park meet in Oceanport, N.J. "You're anticipating it, because chances are you probably have been sitting here and not running anywhere. In my case, (Hurricane Sandy) came in New Jersey, so we left a little earlier than we would have normally."
The Downs has a wave of momentum from the Breeders' Cup, where Fort Larned, winner of the $60,000 Challenger Stakes at Oldsmar, captured the $5 million Classic. Downs graduates Royal Delta (Ladies' Classic) and Zagora (Filly and Mare Turf) also won Breeders' Cup races, as did Downs jockey Willie Martinez (Trinniberg, Sprint) and trainer William "Buff" Bradley (Groupie Doll, Filly and Mare Sprint).
The Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby remains the Downs staple at the 91-day meet. It is one of six graded events on the 25-race, $2.5 million stakes program headed by racing secretary Allison De Luca, assistant Stanley Shina and stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawzyk. The March 9 event has sent eight of its past nine winners to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.
And two Tampa Bay Derby graduates, Super Saver (2010) and Street Sense ('07), won the Run for the Roses. The Tampa Bay Derby is among Kentucky Derby qualifiers that award 50 points to the winner. The Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis on Feb. 2 also is in the Kentucky Derby mix with the winner receiving 10 points. The points system replaces graded stakes earnings this year in Kentucky Derby qualifying.
"We concentrate on the 3-year-olds at Tampa, and the road to the Triple Crown," Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "We've been very successful with that plan in the past. But we also have a strong stakes program overall, case in point, Fort Larned. You never know who you might find in these races."
The Downs reached a new plateau Thursday when the $150,000 Florida Oaks on Feb. 2 was elevated to Grade III status by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. It is the first time the Oldsmar oval has had six graded races.
Jamie Ness, winner of the past six training titles (he shared it twice with Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O'Donnell), returns. Ness is closing on his first national win title. Midwest Thoroughbreds, Ness' client, goes for its fourth consecutive owner title. Defending riding titlist Leandro Goncalves is not back, but four-time champions Ronnie Allen Jr. and Daniel Centeno lead a strong jockey colony.
Downs vice president and general manager Peter Berube has revised the racing schedule to four days most weeks.
DOGS: The $75,000 Holiday Distance Challenge begins qualifying tonight in Races 4, 6, 8 and 10 at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.