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Saturday, Dec 16, 2017
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Horse racing returns to Tampa Bay on Saturday

OLDSMAR — The roar of the crowd will resonate throughout the green and white facility on Race Track Road on Saturday afternoon when the hooves of horses pound the track.

Equine energy is back again at Tampa Bay Downs.

After a 147-day hiatus, the Oldsmar oval resumes its 92nd season of live thoroughbred racing today with a 10-race card. First post is 12:25 p.m. The 91-day meet features a record $3.65 million in purse money for 28 stakes races, including a new four-race Florida Sire Stakes series.

"Everybody is excited and glad to be back, especially the trainers that have some Florida-breds," said Bob Jeffries, 72, the 18-year president of the Downs Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association. "They are excited about the new (Florida Sire Stakes) program."

Gerald Bennett and Kathleen O'Connell, who are approaching a combined 5,600 career wins, are among the returning trainers. Bennett, a three-time conditioning champion, has won the past two meets. O'Connell has a pair of training titles, the last one in 2009-10.

Jamie Ness, who won or shared an unprecedented nine consecutive conditioning championships (2007-15), is not returning, Jeffries said. Ness is focusing on the Mid-Atlantic circuit.

The $450,000 Florida Sire Stakes (Dec. 16 and May 5) will enhance the Downs' stakes program, one that includes six graded races — highlighted by the Grade II $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10. The Derby and Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 10 will be point qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. The $150,000 Suncoast Stakes, also Feb. 10, will be in its first year as a point qualifier for the Kentucky Oaks on May 4. The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks will be contested at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Allison De Luca returns as the Downs racing secretary.

Tom McLaughlin, the vice president of facilities and track surfaces, and assistant Scott Moore have the main track and turf course in immaculate condition.

"As usual, Tom, Scott and their help have done a super good job," Jeffries said. "There's no question we've probably got the best turf course and track around, especially during the winter. When some big-name jockeys like John Velazquez come in (to ride), they always commend this track."

The Downs has installed a new high-definition video board on the infield. An improvement on the backside is the addition of a refurnished trailer where workers can receive dental work.

"(The dental staff) is all volunteer and (the trailer) will be open at least once a week," Jeffries said. "(Downs vice president and general manager Peter Berube and staff) have spent a lot of money, as they always do in the summertime, on a lot of improvements on the backside."

DOGS: The $10,000 Thanksgiving Stakes is Saturday in Race 10 (9:47 p.m.) at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.

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