Thursday, November 24, 2022
Friendships renewed after long summer . . .
OLDSMAR - For so many of the horsemen and jockeys who have returned to Tampa Bay Downs, yesterday’s Opening Day card was like a family reunion. Seeing people they haven’t crossed paths with in six or seven months, and often much longer, is a priceless feeling.
No one really comes here to get rich, although a select few will profit handsomely through equine talent, training and riding skills, determination and the one variable – luck – everyone hopes lands on their shoulder.
But in addition to the weather, which you can’t help mentioning if you’ve come here from just about any track except Gulfstream, it’s the friendships and the shared responsibility of putting on a great show that fill hearts with hope and a strong reminder of why they entered the sport/business in the first place.
“Everyone is real nice here. It’s gotten to where racing is real businesslike, but here at Tampa it’s still like a family deal,” said owner-trainer Robert G. Smith, who owns 104-acre Wesfield Farm in Ocala and has 12 stalls on the Oldsmar backside. “We don’t see most of these people all summer, so it’s like coming home for the holidays.
“Even the people who come to the races, people we’ve gotten to know over the last 10 years, come up and want to know how your horse is doing,” Smith said.
His operation, while large, is also a family affair. His wife Saronda and sons Drake and Rhett all are actively involved, sharing the good times and working as a team through the dry spells.
“When you run your horses in the right spots, you can win races and make money here,” said Smith, who trained former 6 ½-furlong track record-holder White Merlot (Drake owned the filly).
But with everyone chasing the same pot of gold, other benefits to being here are heightened in importance.
“You look at the job (the track’s maintenance department) does with the dirt course and the turf course, they are both safe and consistent,” Smith said. “They do a heck of a job, and that helps make it a good place to run a horse.”
Before Antonio Gallardo won five Tampa Bay Downs riding titles, including three in a row from 2014-2016, he struggled to make a name for himself after arriving stateside from Spain, his homeland. Some observers pointed to his 2013 Challenger Stakes victory aboard Flatter This for trainer Kathleen O’Connell as a key turning point for the jockey, but Gallardo knows “belonging” at Tampa Bay Downs extends beyond having the confidence to compete on the track.
“For me, this is home. This is where my business started to pick up, and it’s where I’m raising my family,” said the 35-year-old Gallardo, whose 2,300-plus career victories include 11 graded stakes. “And a lot of people watch Tampa, so no matter where you go during the summer, they’re going to know you.”
Gallardo and his wife, Polliana, have also formed lasting relationships with members of the Tampa Bay Downs fan base they richly cherish. “Walking back after a race, I can hear people say my name. It’s a great feeling that they come here to see you,” he said.
Looking for more insight into what makes this place feel like that well-worn couch your pop falls asleep on every Sunday? Consider the case of owner-trainer Juan Arriagada’s 10-year-old gelding Native Hawk, dismissed by some before today’s third race as too old for the rigors of racing.
But with jockey Jose Batista keeping the ancient warrior within striking distance of pace-setter Bazoo throughout, Native Hawk did what he has always done best – try. His effort resulted in a head victory, the 19th of his career and his 11th victory in 31 career starts (with six seconds and five thirds) on the Oldsmar dirt.
“He has that competitive spirit. He likes to win,” said Arriagada, who plans to run Native Hawk two or three more times before retiring him to a nearby farm. “When he wins, he comes back to the barn feeling he’s the best of the best. When he comes out of his stall tomorrow, he’ll be acting powerful because he knows what he did. That old man is pretty amazing.”
Tampa Bay Downs might not have the restorative powers of the Fountain of Youth, but it’s a great place to slow the inevitable onslaught of time – for trainers, jockeys, fans and horses, all eager to extend the welcome to newbies.
Around the oval - - The victory aboard Native Hawk was one of two today for Batista, who also won the second race on 3-year-old filly Peppermint Class, a first-time starter, for owner Mastic Beach Racing and trainer Diane Morici.
Batista recently returned to action at Gulfstream Park after being sidelined almost four months with ankle and heel fractures suffered in a fall at Monmouth. He had four seconds from 15 mounts at Gulfstream, and his agent, Eddie Joe Zambrana, welcomed him back with a crushing bear hug after the victory on Peppermint Class.
Jesus Castanon also rode two winners. He won the sixth race, the “Happy Thanksgiving” purse, on Cerulean, a 4-year-old filly owned by Tobin Stables and trained by Kerri Raven. Castanon added the eighth race on Remuda, a 3-year-old colt bred and owned by Godolphin and trained by Eoin Harty.
Nominations released for Inaugural, Sandpiper Stakes. The first two stakes races of the 2022-2023 meet, the Inaugural for 2-year-olds and the Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, have each drawn 21 nominations. The $100,000, 6-furlong events will be run Dec. 3.
Among the nominations for the 37th running of the Inaugural is Lea Farms, LLC’s colt Super Chow, who won the $200,000 Bowman Mill Stakes on Oct. 29 at Keeneland by 5 lengths in his most recent start. Jorge Delgado trains Super Chow, who finished third in the Grade II Saratoga Special Stakes on Aug. 13.
Also nominated to the Inaugural are stakes winners Acoustic Ave, owned by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and trained by Christophe Clement, and the gelding Howgreatisnate, owned by Imaginary Stables and trained by Andrew Simoff, as well as stakes-placed Freedom Road, owned by Pinnacle Racing Team and trained by Gregory Sacco.
Dorth Vader, a 2-year-old Florida-bred filly who won the Juvenile Fillies Sprint Stakes on Oct. 29 at Gulfstream Park in her most recent start, is among the leading nominees for the 45th Sandpiper. She is owned by her breeder, John Ropes, and trained by Michael Yates.
Other top Sandpiper nominees include stakes-placed Florida-bred Oh Darlin, owned by Laurie Plesa and trained by her husband, Edward Plesa Jr., and Personal Pursuit, owned by Tracy Farmer and trained by Mark Casse.
Rare occurrence, indeed. Yesterday’s card marked only the second Opening Day at Tampa Bay Downs this century without a turf race. The 4th and 6th races were switched to the main track due to wet grounds.
The last time it happened was Dec. 17, 2002 – three days after the originally scheduled Opening Day card was cancelled due to heavy rains, followed by severe flooding. The 11th race was carded for the turf, but the grounds still proved too wet for an attempt.
The only other Opening Day card without a grass race since the turf course debuted on May 2, 1998 occurred on Dec. 18, 1999, when the only scheduled turf race on the card was switched to the main track due to persistent showers and wet ground.
Given this history, racing fans can expect plenty of spectacular turf racing this season at the track once known as Sunshine Park.
Attendance - 2,770; Handle - $180,965. ITW - $97,673. ISW - $2,961,911.