OLDSMAR — Several elements are missing these days at Tampa Bay Downs: the horses, the steady stream of patrons, the roar of the crowd from fantastic finishes.
In 49 days, that will change as the Downs kicks off its 87th season of live thoroughbred racing. Two of its graduates — Super Saver (2010) and Street Sense (2007) — have won the Kentucky Derby. And with a $2.6 million stakes program that features five graded events among 25 stakes, the Downs hopes for a banner year in its 91-day meet that runs Dec. 1 through May 5.
Track vice president and general manager Peter Berube is keeping the stakes arrangement and the daily purse allotment of $160,000 intact. The Downs is coming off a down year as it continues to compete against tracks with higher, casino-boosted revenue.
"It's very challenging because the horsemen are coming from jurisdictions that are running for these bigger purses," Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn said. "It gets harder and harder to lure them (to Oldsmar) to race, and for the trainers to convince the owners to come here to race. So we try to keep it as competitive as we possibly can.
"But it's exceedingly challenging when we don't have any supplemental income (like casino tracks)."
Festival Day, headed by the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, remains the Downs' richest card, on March 9. The undercard includes the Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough and the $100,000 Suncoast. The Hillsborough will be one of nine stakes contested on the Downs' highly regarded turf course under the direction of Thomas McLaughlin, recently promoted to vice president of facilities and track services.
The Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis, a prep to the Tampa Bay Derby, highlights Festival Preview Day on Feb. 2. That card includes the Grade III $150,000 Endeavour and $150,000 Florida Oaks.
The track's other graded stakes, the Grade III $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, is Feb. 16. The Downs' final six stakes, all at $75,000, take place on Florida Cup Day on April 6.
Several stakes races have new dates. Two involve Cotillion Day, which has been moved to opening day. The $75,000 Inaugural and $75,000 Sandpiper are co-featured on the card solely for 2-year-olds.
Flynn said the movement of some stakes races gives horsemen the opportunity to run their horses at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and the Downs. The $75,000 Lightning City, a 5-furlong turf sprint formerly on opening day, is now Jan. 26.
Other notable switches include the $60,000 Pelican (Dec. 8), the $75,000 Turf Dash (Jan. 5) and the $50,000 Manatee (Feb. 9).
Allison De Luca returns as the racing secretary.
HORSES: Downs trainer and Odessa resident Jane Cibelli, 51, who last year became the first female to win a conditioning title at Monmouth Park, captured the crown again Sunday at Oceanport, N.J.