They're at the post ... and they're off!
When track announcer Richard Grunder makes the call for the first race today at Tampa Bay Downs, fans will be greeted by change and familiarity.
Allison De Luca is the new racing secretary, one of two women to currently hold such a position in the country. The track's 26-race stakes program has increased to a record $2.5-million purse total, highlighted by the Grade III $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby. Several of the nation's top trainers, including Hall of Famer Nick Zito, Dale Romans and Joseph Orseno, have stalls at the Downs, and more than 125 riders are on hand for the 94-day meet.
The three leaders from last year's Downs meet are back: rider Jose Lezcano, trainer Kirk Ziadie and owner Richard Averill.
Eight-time trainer champion Don Rice returns after a nine-month suspension for having three horses test positive for excess amount of alkaline agents. The Downs started random prerace testing for milkshakes - delivering bicarbonate through tubes into the horses' stomachs to retard the buildup of lactic acid that causes fatigue- last year and is continuing the policy. "We have a strong backside security presence," track spokeswoman Margo Flynn said.
The Tampa Bay Derby and Hillsborough Stakes March 17 remain the Downs' only graded stakes despite Sam F. Davis winner Bluegrass Cat and Florida Oaks winner Bushfire having outstanding campaigns.
"The Endeavour and Sam F. Davis are getting closer to Grade III status," Flynn said. "But we did not receive any upgrades, including the Florida Oaks."
As part of the track's $1-million capital expenditure plan since last year's record-breaking meet, a 30-foot, $500,000 Daktronic video board has been installed in the racing infield. The clubhouse also has new flat-panel plasma and LCD television screens.
Track vice president and general manager Peter Berube announced there will be reduced takeouts on daily double and quinella wagering (from 20 to 19 percent) and Pick 3s (from 25 to 211/2 percent). There will be a series of promotions throughout the meet.
The Morning Glory Club, which features interviews with racing personalities, will be hosted by Grunder on Saturday mornings at 10 in the grandstand. It begins Dec. 30. Track Side, a 30-minute show focused on the Downs, will be televised at 11:35 p.m. Saturdays on Ch. 10. The Silks Card Room is open for poker on live racing days from noon to midnight with new director of poker operations Patrick Murphy.
Today's 11-race card is headed by the $60,000 Inaugural Stakes, a 6-furlong test on the dirt track for 2-year-old colts and geldings. All I Can Get, a Michigan-bred gelding trained by Gerald Bennett for owner Michael McQuade, goes for his third stakes win and fourth overall with T.D. Houghton in the irons. Post time is approximately 4:38.
GREYHOUNDS: McAllister Kennels and Joe Hearns of Floyd & Porter Kennel are the ones to catch with Tampa Greyhound Track in the final month of its 2006 campaign. McAllister leads LaRosa Enterprises in the kennel win standings. Joe Hearns, who returned to action this week after a seven-week layoff, has a meet-high 17 victories, one more than kennelmate Brady Thomas and Dreamy Blossom of D'Arcy Kennel. ... Cal Holland Kennel's Dark Daysnnights paid $300.80 for a $2 win ticket on Nov. 29.