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Area trainer making the most of starts at Tampa Bay Downs

Over the years, Ray Tamargo Jr. hasn't posted the great numbers of his fellow trainers at Tampa Bay Downs from the standpoint of starters and winners. But check the category "percentage of winners to starters," and there's nobody even close to him.

You never can predict before the season if the Tampa area resident will run 40 horses at the meeting, or 20, or five. Whatever the number, his percentage is always outstanding. And you know the chances are that the few he runs will be at least 4 years old.

When his sensational sprinter, Oh So Striking, set a track record of 1:22 /5 for 7 furlongs in 1997, the son of Strike the Anvil was 8. The record still stands.

When Tamargo saddled Martin Cherry's Lady Cerise in a $12,300 allowance race Tuesday, it was just the third horse he had sent out at the meeting that began Dec. 18. He won with the first two, including an impressive score by Lady Cerise on Dec. 31, when she came back from a layoff of nearly 15 months to win a 6-furlong allowance race by 7} lengths under Bill Henry. Tamargo had the daughter of Honor Grades so fit she went wire-to-wire in 1:10 2/5, seven ticks off the track record of 1:09 set by Bootlegger's Pet in 1974.

Tuesday, again going 6 furlongs, the 5-year-old sat close to the early pace, then blew away the competition with a burst at the top of the stretch for a 6\-length victory. The time, however, was not as good _ 1:12:38.

Lady Cerise raised her record to 4-2-1 in eight starts and her earnings jumped to $56,275.

Tamargo's winning streak ended Thursday, when he saddled Brisco Jack for Cherry in a $13,000 allowance race at 6 furlongs. The 6-year-old gelding by Solar Jack is a former stakes winner at the track, capturing the Pelican at last year's meeting on Jan. 2. Brisco Jack went off as the 2-1 second choice, but finished fourth, about 5{ lengths behind the favorite, Desktop.

The next day, Keep Striking, a full brother to Oh So Striking, made his first start for Tamargo since a 4\-length score on Feb. 19, 1998. That had been the 6-year-old gelding's lone career start. This time, Keep Striking was off poorly in the 6-furlong race but rallied to finish third, Winner Judson Jr. was impressive in his return from an approximate 11-month layoff.

DARK HORSE: Proper Man, a colt by Harlan owned by Murray Smith of Ocala and her two partners from Chicago, Mike Eiserman and Earl Silver, is a Kentucky Derby sleeper.

After finishing fourth and third at Woodbine, the colt moved to New Orleans, where he finished third again. In his last two starts, however, Proper Man broke his maiden by winning a mile and a sixteenth by 6 lengths, and won an allowance race at a mile and 40 yards Thursday, this time by 5 lengths.

NO MISSTEPS: Misstress, fifth by 4\ lengths with a nice finish in the 6-furlong Minaret Stakes on Jan. 1, went back in Saturday's $35,000 Manatee at 7 furlongs. For those who were waiting for the 5-year-old daughter of Claramount to get the extra distance, the wait was worth it. Misstress came from near the rear of the 12-horse field to get up by a head over Little Won and return $12.

Misstress ran 1:24:56 for her fourth victory in 15 starts. The check of $21,000 lifted her earnings to $117,810. Shutrina Sand, who had won her first two starts of the meeting by a total of more than 12 lengths, tired to finish third, 2 lengths behind Little Won.

DERBY LANE: The first round of the $85,000 Sprint Classic was run Saturday. The usual field of 32 was expanded to 40. Defending champion Greys Outbound drove from last place to first, but Blitzen Banjo won the first heat at the wire. Then System Ax Friend and Greys Free Style matched strides with Craigie Whistler, who quickly drove to the front, keeping his undefeated record intact and clocking a season-best of 30.48 on the 1,560-foot course. Let Him Shine upset betting favorite Perrone and headed the superfecta worth more than $14,000. Great Beyond held on by a neck against Inaugural winner Odd Jerry. And JB Junior B remained unbeaten, rushing to the lead in the final heat. Round 2 is Wednesday night. The final is Feb. 12. A season best on the 1,980-foot course was set on Saturday night by Robert Mendheim's Boot Scooting Gal, who held off Greys Newsprint to win in 37.53. The track record of 37.08 was set in 1995 by Awesome Memory.

_ Correspondent Vera Filipelli contributed to this report.