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Record meeting concludes at Downs

Even as horse racing's detractors continue to knock the sport, Tampa Bay Downs wound up a dream season Sunday.

It will be remembered as the season when:

A beautiful new turf course was unveiled and embraced;

The handle wagered on Tampa Bay Downs' races reached $108,208,659, shattering the 1996-97 record by about $34-million.

The average daily purse distribution was $74,513, up nearly $13,000 from last year's record-breaking season.

The average daily handle reached nearly $1.2-million, up more than $335,000 a day from the 1997 record.

It also was the season when the Tampa Bay Derby winner, Parade Ground, went to the Kentucky Derby and finished a respectable sixth.

It was the season when, on Jan. 6, the track celebrated its biggest day as $3.1-million was fed into the mutuel machines from all sources. And when Flashy Link raced 5{ furlongs in 1:03 4/5, breaking one of the track's longest standing records.

Saturday's inaugural turf race, along with the Kentucky Derby simulcast, drew more than 8,600 to the track, the second-largest crowd in its 71-year history.

Anticipation grew overnight for Sunday's second turf test, this one for fillies and mares.

After Saturday's race was won by Ship Liner, the jockeys were unanimous in their assessment that the course was "excellent." But there was some division over whether the turns were a little sharp. After the fillies performed Sunday, those who went for "a little sharp" seemed to have an edge.

The winner, Mercedes Song, hugged the rail the entire trip, passing every horse but the leader, Cindys Sonnet, as the rest of the field went wide heading into the stretch.

Then the filly by Mercedes Won dug in under Glenn Stannard and drew off to score with authority for owner/trainer Deborah Artz. Her 1996 Tampa Bay Derby winner, Thundering Storm, finished fourth in the Saturday grass race.

Jesse Garcia saw his lead in the jockeys standings dwindle to a precious few in the closing days, but he held on to defeat red-hot Kevin Whitley 63-60. Dodie Duys, the leading female rider in North America, was third with 59 winners.

Magali Mascarte, from France, was the leading apprentice rider with 14 winners before she lost her apprentice allowance in April.

Joe Cesarini captured his first trainers title, saddling 33 winners to 27 for Richie Ciardullo Jr. But Ciardullo saddled the most stakes winners (three) and accumulated the most purse money.

That purse money already is accruing for next season via the vast simulcasting operation that will continue at the track throughout the summer and fall.

And with the tremendous success on so many fronts at the meeting that just ended, anticipation for next season already has begun.