Five days after Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey coast, Anthony Pecoraro's horses were loaded onto an Andrew Simoff Horse Transportation van for the trip south to their lodgings for the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs racing season, which begins Dec. 1.
Despite the devastation wreaked by the storm, van driver Ed Long said the process went smoothly from the time he and fellow driver Joe Marinaccio pulled up to Pecoraro's Monmouth barn to when they disembarked at Barn 5 at Tampa Bay Downs.
The barn area had been scheduled to open today, but track Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube moved things up a day to accommodate mid-Atlantic and Northern horsemen impacted by the hurricane.
"There really weren't any challenges getting the horses out because everything had subsided after the storm, but Monmouth was like a ghost town," Long said. "We were able to pull right up, load the horses and start driving. We had a good trip all the way."
Pecoraro - whose father, Matteo, supervised the stabling of the horses on the Tampa Bay Downs backside - was appreciative of track management's flexibility.
"If my horses hadn't left (Saturday), I would have had to wait another three or four days to get a van," the younger Pecoraro said from Miami on Sunday morning. "A few of the barns had flooded and they had shut down the track. You couldn't do anything but leave. It was a catastrophe, just like Hurricane Andrew" (20 years ago in south Florida).
Last year, horses trained by Joan Scott were the first arrivals at Tampa Bay Downs, and her stable broke alertly from the gate to the top of the early standings. Pecoraro is optimistic of a similar occurrence. "Most of my horses are ready to run," he said.
The Dec. 1 Cotillion Festival Day card will feature a full slate of 2-year-old races, highlighted by the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds and the $75,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Both events are contested at the six-furlong distance.
An added Opening Day attraction is the "All-You-Can-Eat" Breakfast Buffet from 8-10 a.m. in the Picnic Pavilion Area. The cost is $6.95, which includes grandstand admission and a racing program.
Fans will also have the chance to meet trainers and jockeys and watch morning workouts. A free handicapping seminar will be held from 10-11 a.m.
Tickets for the breakfast must be purchased before Opening Day. Please contact Customer Service or the switchboard desk for additional information.
Anticipation for the start of the upcoming season rose to unprecedented heights last weekend, when five horses with Tampa Bay Downs connections won Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita in southern California.
The 4-year-old colt Fort Larned - who earned his first career stakes victory at Tampa Bay Downs on March 3 in the Challenger Stakes - capped a memorable two days of racing Saturday by capturing the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic for Tampa Bay Downs trainer Ian Wilkes, owner Janis Whitham and jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., who also celebrated his 27th birthday.
Two races earlier, long-time Tampa Bay Downs jockey and Tampa resident Willie Martinez guided 3-year-old colt Trinniberg to an upset victory in the $1.5-million Breeders' Cup Sprint for owner Sherry Parbhoo and her father, Shivananda Parbhoo.
In the $1-million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, Tampa Bay Downs trainer and co-owner William Bradley saddled 4-year-old filly Groupie Doll for a convincing victory under jockey Rajiv Maragh.
On Friday, 5-year-old mare Zagora and jockey Javier Castellano repeated their Tampa Bay Downs successes in the Grade III Endeavour and Grade III Hillsborough Stakes in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf for owner Martin Schwartz and trainer Chad Brown. Also on Friday, 4-year-old Royal Delta - who competed in the 2011 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs - repeated in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic for owner Besilu Stables, trainer William Mott and jockey Mike Smith.
In addition to its live meeting from Dec. 1-May 5, Tampa Bay Downs offers year-round entertainment with simulcast wagering, no-limits action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.