For solid evidence of that fact when the 2011-2012 thoroughbred racing season begins on Dec. 3, look no further than a pair of Hall of Fame trainers who will stable horses on the backside this season, Carl Nafzger and William Mott.
Although neither won locally, their races at Tampa Bay Downs laid solid foundations for their Breeders’ Cup success at Churchill Downs.
Supporting evidence of the track’s standing among top horsemen comes from trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the 2009 Kentucky Derby with third-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Super Saver and has sent numerous stakes horses here in recent years.
The showcase of another meet filled with promise and potential is the annual Festival Day, slated this season for Saturday, March 10. The Festival’s centerpiece is the $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. The race has produced two of the last five Kentucky Derby winners -- the aforementioned 2007 Street Sense in 2007 and Super Saver, who won the 2009 Run for the Roses after finishing third locally.
Also on the March 10 card are the $150,000, Grade III Hillsborough Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth turf race for older fillies and mares, and the newly sponsored, $100,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes, for 3-year-old fillies at one mile and 40 yards.
For horsemen, more welcome news comes in the form of a purse increase of $1,000 for all open claiming events from $16,000-$25,000, as well as a $1,000 increase for first-level allowance races.
The 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Downs stakes schedule features 25 quality events for runners of all ages and descriptions, while offering total purse money of approximately $2.6 million. Seven stakes races are offering increases of $25,000, fueled partially by contributions from the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.
The Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds, one of three stakes on the Feb. 4 racing card, has been increased to $250,000 while keeping its Grade III status. The Davis is the leading prep race for the Tampa Bay Derby.
Also on the Feb. 4 card are two $150,000 turf races at a mile and a sixteenth: the Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and the Grade III Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares. Both feature a 20-percent increase in purse money from last year. This is the second year the Florida Oaks will be run on the turf.
Another graded stakes on the calendar is the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes for older horses at a mile and a sixteenth on Feb. 25. The purse has been raised to $150,000.
The opening-day stakes feature on Dec. 3 is the $75,000-guaranteed Lightning City Stakes at about five furlongs on the turf for fillies and mares 3-and-upward. Post time each day is 12:25 p.m.
Many of the track’s leading jockeys and trainers from past seasons are set to return, but perhaps none will be more warmly embraced by area racing fans than jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr., who gave birth to a daughter in August. Homeister was Tampa Bay Downs’ second-leading rider in 2009-10, with 98 victories, and has ridden more than 2,400 winners in her storied career, second all-time among female jockeys to Hall of Fame member Julie Krone.
Expect the 2011-12 jockey colony to be among the deepest In memory. In addition to Homeister, its ranks will include Ronnie Allen Jr., who captured his fourth Tampa Bay Downs riding title last season with 109 winners; 2010-11 third-place finisher Leandro Goncalves, the leading jockey this year at both Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs; accomplished veteran Willie Martinez, who set a Tampa Bay Downs record 20 seasons ago with 123 victories; and such up-and-comers as Huber Villa-Gomez, Pablo Morales, Fernando De La Cruz, Angel Serpa, Jermaine Bridgmohan and Frederic Lenclud.
Two of the country’s savviest claiming trainers, Jamie Ness and Gerald Bennett, tied for the Tampa Bay Downs title last season with 61 victories apiece and are set to resume their spirited competition starting Dec. 3. Ness, who also won training titles at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania and Thistledown in Ohio, is battling Steven Asmussen for the 2012 national wins title.
Tampa Bay Downs trainer Wayne Catalano’s credentials include three Breeders’ Cup victories -- this year’s Juvenile Fillies Turf with Stephanie’s Kitten and the 2006 and 2008 Juvenile Fillies with Dreaming of Anna and She Be Wild, respectively.
It would come as no surprise if Catalano decides to point Stephanie’s Kitten to the Feb. 4 Florida Oaks on the lawn for owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey. Catalano, a former jockey with almost 1,800 victories in the saddle, won the 2008 Endeavour and Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs with Dreaming of Anna.
H. Graham Motion, the trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is expected to have a larger presence than ever at Tampa Bay Downs this season. Meanwhile, returning to Oldsmar are top trainers Kathleen O’Connell, who won the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby with Watch Me Go, and Jane Cibelli, who recently captured the Monmouth Park training title in New Jersey.
O’Connell and Cibelli finished third and fourth, respectively, in local victories last season. Almost all of the remaining members of the top-10 are returning, including Thomas Proctor, Jorge Navarro, Anthony Pecoraro, Gregory Griffith and Lori Smock.
The list of newcomers among the Tampa Bay Downs training ranks is equally impressive. It includes Buff Bradley, Michael Maker, trainer of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen, leading Delaware Park trainer Juan Vazquez and top Calder conditioner Antonio Sano.
The 2011-12 meeting runs from December 3 through May 6.