78-Year-Old Gerald Bennett Pushes Toward Seventh Straight Training Title At Tampa

Five winners since last Sunday have enabled Gerald Bennett to strengthen his grip on the top spot in the standings as he seeks a Tampa Bay Downs-record seventh consecutive uncontested training title and his eighth overall.

Bennett sent out Estilo Varonil to win today’s first race, a six-furlong, $8,000 claiming sprint, a week after he claimed the 4-year-old gelding for that price from a victory. Fernando De La Cruz rode Estilo Varonil, who is owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables, Inc., outfit.

The victory gives Bennett 31 for the meeting, eight more than Juan Arriagada and nine ahead of Kathleen O’Connell, with 18 days left in the meeting (including the June 30 card, which for record-keeping purposes is the official final day of the 2021-2022 season and also marks the start of the track’s annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing).

Bennett has averaged almost 57 winners over his six championship seasons, but he is competing against tougher competition this year, both on the racetrack and at the claims box. Through March, 286 horses had been claimed at Tampa Bay Downs (slightly more than four per performance, by average), with almost $3.3-million paid out by purchasers.

Running a horse for an equal or lower claiming price by dropping it in class is a riskier strategy than ever at Tampa Bay Downs, where rival trainers are poised to pounce when a likely bargain attracts their attention. But with victories the primary objective, taking that chance is often the best option.

“The competition (in the claiming ranks) is tougher than ever, with all the trainers here who have been doing a lot of claiming this season,” Bennett said. “And sometimes I have to put two horses in a race to make it ‘go,’ so in that case, you’re going to have to wait another few weeks before both horses can make their next start.”

The difficulty in getting proposed races to fill has resulted in Bennett starting such quality campaigners as He’s Smokin’ Now, Arcadia Calls and Confessor a combined six times during the entire meeting.

“But we’ve claimed 17 horses, so I’ve got the stock back here (to defend his title) if enough races fill,” added Bennett, referring to the conditions issued by the Racing Office that horses must fit to compete in a given race. “I’m feeling pretty good about it now that we’re getting rolling again, but you don’t want to jinx yourself,” he said, laughing.

Whatever happens, Bennett isn’t going to stand idle. On Saturday, his 3-year-old filly Ready to Film won the sixth race, minutes before the skies opened and heavy rains and lightning caused the cancellation of the last four races on the card.

The 78-year-old conditioner wasn’t here to join the winner’s-circle scene, or to get drenched. Instead, he was at Gulfstream Park to saddle 4-year-old colt Carpenters Call for a third-place finish in the Grade 3, $100,000 Kitten’s Joy Appleton Stakes.

Jamie Ness is the track record-holder for most consecutive training titles, with nine won from 2006-2007 through 2014-2015. However, two of those were joint titles, as Ness tied for the top spot in 2009-2010 with O’Connell and in 2010-2011 with Bennett.

Since last Sunday, Bennett has won five races here from 15 starts, after winning only four races from March 2 through March 26.

Neither of Bennett’s runners Sunday, Estilo Varonil nor unplaced eighth-race entrant Irish Dream Girl, was claimed.

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