By Tampa Bay Press Staff – The smell of freshly cut grass drifted across the Grandstand apron shortly after 9 a.m. today, as track maintenance workers groomed Tampa Bay Downs’ renowned turf in preparation for Wednesday’s Opening Day program.
Although no one was around to savor the sweet fragrance, that scenario will change in two days when spectators are allowed to view the races in person for the first time since March 15. A nine-race card that includes four races on the pristine grass course begins at 12:25 p.m. The gates open at 11 a.m.
Wednesday’s feature race is the Happy Thanksgiving Purse, an allowance/optional claiming event carded as the eighth race. A field of nine colts and geldings will sprint 6 ½ furlongs on the main dirt track. The 3-1 morning-line favorite is 3-year-old colt Hauntedbythemusic, trained by Baltazar Galvan, with Samy Camacho named to ride.
Officially, Wednesday is the second day of the 2020-2021 Thoroughbred meeting, which began on July 1, the second day of the track’s two-day Summer Festival of Racing. Tampa Bay Downs will race on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule before adding Sundays to the mix on Dec. 20 (the track will race Thursday, Dec. 24 and be closed Christmas, Dec. 25).
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, fans will be required to wear masks both inside and outside the facility, unless they are eating or drinking. Social distancing is encouraged and will be enforced, as necessary.
Gerald Bennett, who has won five consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training titles and six overall, has entered seven horses for Wednesday. He described the vibe on the grounds as upbeat as horsemen, jockeys and backstretch personnel get ready to launch the track’s 95th anniversary season.
“Everyone wants to get running. We have quite a few new outfits here and quite a few new riders, very competitive riders,” Bennett said. “We’re eager to get started and see how everything unfolds, but I think we’re going to have pretty competitive racing from the first day.
“You have the great weather and you have a dirt track that is the same consistency from day to day, so you don’t have to over-train your horses. The turf track is probably as good as any turf track in the country, so you get (trainers such as) Chad Brown, Shug McGaughey, (Todd) Pletcher and (Christophe) Clement shipping horses in to run.”
That doesn’t make it any easier to win races, but it draws attention – and wagering dollars – from bettors far and wide.
Camacho, who won the Oldsmar jockeys title in 2018-2019 and captured last season’s Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on 49-1 shot King Guillermo, expects to be tested by his rivals from the beginning. He can’t wait.
“I had a good season at Gulfstream (in south Florida), but I love Tampa and I’m glad to be back with my family and my friends and the fans. I’m excited, and I want to start winning races and having fun,” Camacho said.
While Camacho is fired up to hear the shouts from the crowd as he rides a horse to victory, Bennett says having fans along for the ride gives everyone a boost.
“A lot of fans always talk to me and ask me if my horse has a shot, and I’ll talk about the race and tell them which horse I think we have to beat,” Bennett said. “It’s good having them back, and Tampa is a great area to race and live. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and everybody knows each other in the barn area, so it gets to be like a family.”
A family with its share of intense rivalries.
While Bennett expects to have as many as 50 horses in his stable (including some trained by his wife, Mary Ann Bennett), he expects strong challenges for the top spot from last season’s runner-up, Kathleen O’Connell, and third-place finisher Michael Stidham.
Newcomers likely to be heard from include Michael Maker, Jon Arnett and David Van Winkle.
The jockeys race should also be highly charged from the outset, with Camacho joined in the battle by defending champion Antonio Gallardo, a five-time title-holder; six-time winner Daniel Centeno; Pablo Morales; Jose Ferrer; Jesus Castanon; Ronnie Allen, Jr.; and newcomer Roberto Alvarado, Jr.
The 2020-2021 stakes schedule kicks off on Dec. 5, Cotillion Festival Day, which features a card of mostly 2-year-old races. Stakes offerings that day include the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds and the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Both races are at a distance of 6 furlongs on the main track. The Inaugural closed Saturday with 25 nominations, while the Sandpiper attracted 24 nominations.
The 41st annual Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, a showcase for Triple Crown prospects, will be held March 6 as part of a Festival Day program including four graded stakes and total stakes purse money of $1-million.