OLDSMAR — Gerald Bennett will saddle Wild About Irene in today's $50,000 Manatee Stakes and proceed to his box seat on the grandstand's second level at Tampa Bay Downs.
It is from that vantage point where the veteran trainer will gauge his filly's development.
"We're going to try this race and see if she's moving good enough to start to move up to the next caliber of horses," Bennett said. "If you don't try stakes races, you're not going to get them. She's just now in her 4-year-old year and doing very well."
Wild About Irene is one of eight older fillies and mares in the 7-furlong event (Race 7, 3:24 p.m.). Walter De La Cruz has the mount from post 6. The 7-5 morning-line favorite is five-time stakes winner Risky Rachel.
Bennett, who turns 70 on March 14, has given many horses many chances. The native of Springhill, Nova Scotia, ranks 20th all time with 3,403 victories and purse earnings in excess of $31.4 million.
The daughter by Grade I winner Offlee Wild out of My Belonging loves the Downs, finishing in the money in eight of nine starts over both surfaces. She broke her maiden at Oldsmar in her second career race in 2012, has a victory and a second in two starts this meet against allowance-optional claiming company, and has won two of her past three races.
Wild About Irene is stakes-placed with a second to Manuka Honey in the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes in 2013 at the Downs. Later that year, she tried the Grade II $200,000 Indiana Oaks at Indiana Downs in Shelbyville. The Kentucky-bred wound up tiring and finishing sixth — the only time she has been worse than second in her past seven races.
"It took her a while to start maturing," Bennett said. "She seems to be getting better now, and I think she's actually a little better on grass."
Wild About Irene has four wins from 16 starts with $92,782 in earnings. She was purchased for $18,000 at the September 2011 yearling sale at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Her owner, Dr. Kurt Jaenicke of Ocean Breeze Stable, is an obstetrician and gynecologist in Ashland, Ky.
Bennett shared the Downs training title in 2010-11 with seven-time defending champion Jamie Ness, and is among the leaders this meet. He doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon. "I'd like to get me a (Kentucky) Derby horse or get an owner to buy me one," Bennett said.
That almost happened in 2011. Bennett claimed Crimson Knight for $16,000 and in the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the 86-1 shot lost by a neck to the Kathleen O'Connell-trained Watch Me Go. The $210,000 paycheck sent Watch Me Go to the Kentucky Derby.
RIDER RETURNS: Fernando De La Cruz, the Downs' leading rider until he broke a wrist in a December spill, has returned to action.