OLDSMAR — The three R's are with Tampa Bay Downs: resumption, resources and revitalization.
On Wednesday, the track's 88th season of thoroughbred racing resumes — yes, resumes. It will begin the meat of the 91-day meet with all but two racing dates through May 4. But those other two days (June 30 and July 1) have provided the Downs a financial windfall to raise purses 15 percent and make key upgrades, including a newly painted facility and a renovated backside kitchen. The state-approved dates gave the Downs year-round, live-racing status, enabling it to generate additional money through simulcast wagering sites.
The 25-race stakes program totals more than $2.7 million, an all-time high. It is headed by the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on Festival Day, March 8. The signature event is the Downs' only Kentucky Derby point-related race (85 total points) after Churchill Downs took the Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis (Feb. 1) off the qualifying list. Track vice president and general manager Peter Berube has announced the Downs is offering a $1 million bonus to the owner of a horse that wins the Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby (May 3).
Stakes action kicks off Dec. 7 with the Inaugural and Sandpiper, both $100,000 sprints on the Cotillion Festival Day card for 2-year-olds. That day will start with Breakfast at the Downs (8 a.m.) in the tent near the paddock. Open to the public, the event allows fans to watch horses work out and meet horsemen and jockeys.
"We're looking forward to the resumption of the season," Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "It's always great to have the horsemen, jockeys, the fans in the stands … and getting down to business."
Four-time leading rider Ronnie Allen Jr., who collected his 3,000th career win Sept. 11, is part of a strong jockey colony. Daniel Centeno, a five-time champion, is riding in Maryland and not expected to return. Nine of the top 11 trainers are back, including Jamie Ness and Kathleen O'Connell. Ness seeks his eighth consecutive win title. O'Connell, a two-time champion, edged Ness by $100 for the purse crown last year and comes off her first Breeders' Cup appearance.
"We have some faces that are returning with a much stronger presence," Flynn said. "They like the program, the surface to train on, and the turf course is second to none."
The Downs has allocated all 1,395 stalls, but competition will be keen with Calder in Miami Gardens and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach also racing this winter. Allison De Luca is back as racing secretary.
"We have a full backside so we're anticipating a strong season," Flynn said.
DERBY LANE: The $75,000 Holiday Challenge, one of the St. Petersburg greyhound track's richest stakes, begins tonight with qualifying in Races 4, 6, 8 and 10. The finale is Dec. 14.