It didn't take long for Tampa Bay Downs owner Stella Thayer and general manager John Grady to find out how horsemen feel about their new turf course. Nominations closed Saturday for this weekend's pair of $15,000 handicaps on the grass, and 69 horses were made eligible.
Saturday's 1 1/16-mile test for colts and geldings drew 35 nominations, and Sunday's Distaff drew 34. That doesn't include any that might show up late. Of course, despite the numbers and the course's width _ 80 feet _ there will be just 10 starters in each field, with the highweights being accorded preference.
Racing secretary Bobby Clark will announce the weights for Saturday's race on Tuesday and for Sunday's race on Thursday.
Speculation on whether the grass course would be inaugurated this season has been rampant since Opening Day. But, from his tone, it has been apparent all season that track superintendent Bobby Cassanese was going to do everything possible to get a race or two in. He wanted to test the course to see how it held up, giving him the opportunity to make changes over the summer, if necessary. Now Cassanese will have that chance.
Among the familiar names nominated for Saturday are 1996 Tampa Bay Derby winner Thundering Storm, 1998 stakes-winner Ship Liner, tough veteran Oak Springs Ace, and Bronson Slew Chief and Box Seat Lover, who finished 2-3 in Saturday's feature race behind Golden Frosty, who is not nominated even though his sire, Frosty the Snowman, was a great grass runner.
Among the fillies and mares are Bluestarobethlehem and Cindys Sonnet, two of the most consistent runners of their sex at this meeting, Topic Gallapiat, the stakes-winning daughter of Gallapiat who has never finished worse than second, recent allowance-winner Red Hot Jane, and the incredible Princess Dottie, who was racing in $4,000 claiming company as late as Jan. 30, and has a four-race winning streak.
The Saturday turf inaugural, added to the Kentucky Derby and all the great stakes preceding it at Churchill Downs, could make May 2 the most successful betting day of the season at Tampa Bay Downs.
DERBY BOUND: With five days remaining to the 124th Derby, they may or may not have to use the auxiliary starting gate at Churchill Downs, with possibly more than 14 horses running for the roses. Among them should be Parade Ground, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby on March 22, and Rock and Roll, who finished third in the race and has since changed hands. Rock and Roll was purchased by the two women in racing who, no doubt, have the highest profiles, Madeleine Paulson, wife of leading breeder Allen, and Jenny Craig, wife of Sidney and owner in her own right of all those weight-reducing clinics.
The Tampa Bay Derby winner who enjoyed the greatest success immediately after his victory in Oldsmar was Paristo, winner of the inaugural running in 1981. Paristo didn't contest the Kentucky Derby, but finished third behind Pleasant Colony and Bold Ego in the Preakness, losing by 3 lengths at odds of 74-1. He came back to win the Illinois Derby a few weeks later. David Ashcroft, who was later paralyzed after a riding accident at Calder, was aboard for all those successes with Paristo.
Lou Wolfson's Reinvested, winner of the 1982 Tampa Bay Derby, finished second behind Gato del Sol in Louisville, a neck out of second place.
The last Tampa winner to contest the Kentucky Derby was Cefis in 1988, and the fast-finishing colt trained by Woody Stephens finished eighth.
DERBY LANE: Semifinal rounds of the 59th annual Gold Trophy Juvenile Stakes will be held Wednesday night in the sixth and 10th races. The selective stakes is for young greyhounds collecting their first career win at Derby Lane this year. Last year's champ, Fast Money (Ward Kennel), continued his winning ways in Kansas, winning the Kansas Shootout Stakes. Fast Money was named to the All-America Team (eight best in the country) by the American Greyhound Track Operators Association. None of the betting favorites won among the field of 32. Semifinal highlights include LaRosa Kennel's Flying Hades, victorious on Saturday and the Puppy Preview stakes winner in January. Long-shot winners were Abernathy's Circus Dylan ($61.80) and Thunderbird's Oshkosh Nicholas ($34.80). Ryan Farm's JB Pistolero had the fastest Round 1 time (31.13 seconds). The four greyhounds must finish fourth or better Wednesday for a shot at the $9,000 purse Saturday. Superfecta wagering was added to the fifth race betting format Tuesday and will remain this season. There will be simulcast wagering on the Kentucky Derby. Plaza gates will open at 11 a.m. for Churchill Down's first post at 11:30.
TAMPA JAI-ALAI: With 26 wins, frontcourter Aitor is tied with Jabi for player-of-the-month honors. Elgueta is first in championship backcourt with 19 wins, two more than Iriondo, Garro and Jimbo. Backcourter Iruta trails Jabi by two wins in championship singles. Fans can watch and wager on the Kentucky Derby Saturday.
_ Correspondents Shane Best and Vera Filipelli contributed to this report.