OLDSMAR — When Breeders' Cup winners Drosselmeyer, Fort Larned and Royal Delta made their Tampa Bay Downs debuts, none won. The true winners were area fans.
"We've been lucky and had some awfully nice horses run here," track racing secretary Allison De Luca said.
For 11 of the next 12 Saturdays (Jan. 19 being the exception), stakes races will be in the spotlight at the Downs. In all, 16, including an all-time high six graded events, totaling $1.935 million will be contested.
The Minaret Stakes, a $50,000 race for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs, begins the surge today in Race 8 (3:55 p.m.). Cards with Kentucky Derby implications will be Festival Preview Day on Feb. 2, featuring the Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis, and Festival Day on March 9, topped by the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
"We'll be busy on the bigger days coming up," De Luca said. "In the end, we have Florida Cup Day (April 6). We work hard to get as many horses and the best horses we can."
Stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawzyk works the telephone daily and travels to Miami to recruit horse owners.
"(Tracks) didn't used to have stakes coordinators, but any major program has one now," De Luca said. "It's a huge load off any racing secretary.
"Our track superintendent (Tom McLaughlin) does such a good job on the turf and the dirt. But it's getting harder and harder (to get good horses) because there are so many stakes around the country. Every track is vying for these horses."
Besides the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby, other graded stakes races are the Endeavour and Florida Oaks on Feb. 2, Tampa Bay Stakes on Feb. 16 and the Hillsborough on March 9, all Grade III events with $150,000 purses. The Florida Oaks, a turf test for 3-year-old fillies, received graded status this year.
"Tampa Bay Downs has worked hard to develop this stakes program and have a good Derby," De Luca said. "That happened long before I got here."
GREYHOUNDS: Derby Lane kicks off its 88th season Tuesday at St. Petersburg. A change from January through March has Monday matinee racing. The track will remain open that night for poker and simulcast wagering. There will continue to be eight weekly performances. On New Year's Eve, Derby Lane offers a matinee card with no night racing. … Qualifying for the $8,000 Inaugural Stakes begins Wednesday night. The top four in Races 6 and 10 reach the Jan. 5 final. … Derby Lane lost one of its veteran kennels this week with Lester Raines going to Southland Park in West Memphis, Ark. Replacing Lester Raines will be a kennel from Jacksonville operated by John Lashmet.