“He has probably won more races for me than any jockey,” Ness said after Centeno powered 6-year-old gelding Tapis Magique to a ¾-length victory from Fleeter in Sunday’s eighth race, a six-furlong allowance optional claiming event for older horses. “He is a really strong rider for finishing. Every time you think he is beat, he comes to finishing.”
Ness won with three of his four starters Sunday, stretching his winning streak to five races over the past three days before his 4-year-old colt Joann’s Success ran unplaced in the 10th race.
Through Sunday, Ness leads the nation with 118 victories and is seventh among all trainers in earnings with more than $1.7 million (Ness also maintains strings at Oaklawn Park, Penn National and Pimlico, where he won a stakes race Saturday).
More pronounced is his success at Tampa Bay Downs, where his 69 winners have resulted from 147 starters – a staggering 47 percent win rate. All of his Tampa Bay Downs horses are owned by the Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. operation of Richard Papiese, the 2011 runner-up for the Eclipse Award as Leading Owner.
The 37-year-old Ness is assured of his sixth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title, also a record (he tied Gerald Bennett last season and Kathleen O’Connell for the 2009-10 crown). Ness recently surpassed the 1,500-victory mark in his career and his horses are over $19 million in lifetime purse earnings.
“I know we have a lot of good horses this year. I have the best horses I’ve ever had,” Ness said after tying the record Sunday in the sixth race with 3-year-old gelding Kirbinator (who was claimed for $10,000 by trainer James McCullough for new owner Albert Boyd Brewster). “Of course, they have to perform and the races have to fill, and that has happened.
“We’ve had a good meet. We have 18 more days, and there is no stopping now. We’re going to just keep going and do what we do. I know it can’t last forever, but our stable is good right now.”
Ness credited his wife and assistant Mandy and exercise rider Trisha Walters, as well as the 20 or so other employees who help with his operation, for their daily contributions. He also knows a record season couldn’t have happened without the efforts of such mainstay riders as Centeno, Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Leandro Goncalves and Huber Villa-Gomez.
“Every time I leg those guys up, I know they are going to try hard for us,” Ness said. “They all are classy, hard-working jockeys who give me everything they’ve got, and they want to win just as bad as I do. We’ll go over our race strategy in the mornings, because when you’re in the paddock you don’t have much time.
“But I don’t give them very much instruction. It happens out there, and I give them the horse and it’s up to them to win the race.”
Ness would enjoy helping Midwest chase the Eclipse again in 2012, and he feels the stable is deep enough to avoid any major slumps.
Certainly, there are no signs of a slowdown through the first three months of the year. Ness knows his extraordinary winning percentage at Tampa Bay Downs has raised numerous eyebrows and acknowledges he hears the complaints of detractors who think there is more to it than good stock, good training and placing the horses well.
“It’s something I’m not used to, but it comes with the territory of being on top, I guess,” Ness said. “The higher your win percentage is, the more detractors you get. But I sleep well at night, and not because I’m tired.
“I know everything gets done right and it doesn’t bother me when I walk through the grandstand and hear people say ‘Oh, they’re cheating,’ but it bothers the people who work for me, and that’s what I care about. I’m used to it, but some of my grooms get very defensive when somebody says ‘You guys are cheaters’ or something like that.
“I guess it comes down to something I learned a long time ago – the key to winning races is to lead over the best horse. Man, that helps a lot,” Ness said.
Centeno rode four winners on Sunday’s card, his second four-bagger in the past six days of racing.
In addition to the Ness record-breaker with Tapis Magique, Centeno won the second race for Ness and Midwest with 4-year-old gelding Phil’s Tango and the third for owner Robert J. Hunt and trainer Donald F. Hunt with 3-year-old filly Bridal Court.
Centeno capped his outstanding afternoon by winning the 10th race with 7-1 shot Twisted Rose, a 5-year-old gelding, for breeder-owners Dawn and Kenneth Manness, who trains the Florida-bred.
Saturday, April 7 is Florida Cup Day at Tampa Bay Downs, with six stakes races for registered Florida-breds worth $75,000 each and total purse distribution of more than $500,000.
Tampa Bay Downs, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association invite breeders, owners and trainers to attend a luncheon from noon-3 p.m. on Florida Cup Day under the tent adjacent to the paddock. The event is free of charge with proper identification.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 8 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.
The Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America will hold its annual Easter Egg Hunt and Party at 1 p.m. on Thursday at the chaplain’s office on the backside of the track. Children 12 and younger whose parents are licenses are invited to attend. Activities include the Easter Egg Hunt, games, refreshments, prayer and fellowship, plus a visit from the Easter Bunny. Free tickets are available in the chaplain’s office.
A Catholic Mass Service will be conducted Easter Sunday, April 8 at 10:45 a.m. in the chaplain’s office. Father Michael Cooper will hear confession and celebrate mass in observance of Easter. An Easter church service will also be held Monday, April 9 at 6 p.m. in the chaplain’s office. All are invited to attend the worship and communion service in observance of Easter.
Tampa Bay Downs fans can download races on their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch device through HorseRacesNow.com, which provides an innovative mobile application that allows users to access racing from numerous tracks.