Renowned for high-quality Thoroughbred horse racing, exciting no-limits tournament action in The Silks Poker Room, and outstanding instruction and amenities at The Downs Golf Practice Facility, Tampa Bay Downs is the premier multi-entertainment destination on Florida’s west coast. As the track prepares to celebrate its 96th anniversary season, its remarkable history is worth another look.
Kentucky Colonel Matt J. Winn (right), the legendary promoter of the Kentucky Derby and a member of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, teamed with Ohio investor Harvey Myers, Jr., to bring horse racing to the “Top of the Bay” in 1926. Opening under the name Tampa Downs on Feb. 18, the inaugural card featured appearances by sports legends Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Sarazen, and circus impresario John Ringling.
Since that first season, Tampa Bay Downs has provided area fans and visitors with thrilling racing action from late autumn through the first weekend in May, adding an annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing in 2013, held each June 30 July 1.
During the previous century, Tampa Bay Downs was not immune from the effects of world events such as the Great Depression and World War II. Following several years of inactivity, the U.S. Army took over the track in 1943 for use as a jungle-warfare training facility for troops preparing to fight overseas.
The end of the war signaled a renewed interest in Thoroughbred racing throughout the country, and the west coast of Florida was no exception. Sunshine Park Racing Association was formed, and 650 stalls were provided, and the 1947 season was approved by referendum. The “modern era” began under the ownership of Tampa attorney Frank Hobbs. Innovations included a tote board, electric starting gate, and photo-finish camera.
Sunshine Park gained popularity with sportswriters who came to the area to cover baseball spring training. Legendary journalists such as Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Fred Russell, and Arthur Daley were devoted regulars, with Rice describing the racetrack as the “Santa Anita of the South.” Smith was almost as effusive (though decidedly tongue-in-cheek), writing “America’s newest palace of pleasure and temple of chance is a rude clearing in the palmetto thickets that is aptly called Sunshine Park because the sun has steadfastly refused to shine upon it and the nearest park of consequence is Yellowstone.” One wonders if Smith, a University of Notre Dame product, mistook the sun for some other celestial body if he was here more than two or three days.
The opening of a new clubhouse in 1954 marked another milestone. The following year, control of the track passed to a syndicate that included Hobbs, who created the Florida Breeders’ Futurity and in 1957 was voted Florida’s Man of the Year.
Top owners Fred Hooper, Sanford Stud, Llangollen Farm, and Gene Mori sent strings to race here in 1959, and the track became recognized outside the confines of the area. In 1965 the track was acquired by a group of Tampa sportsmen headed by Chester Ferguson, and it was renamed Florida Downs and Turf Club a year later.
Known informally as “the Oldsmar oval,” the track has remained in the Ferguson family since, through the current ownership of President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer and her brother, Vice President-Secretary Howell Ferguson.
Tampa Bay Downs President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer is a member of The Jockey Club and a past member of its Board of Stewards, a past President of both the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and a breeder and owner.
In September of 1968, a fire destroyed the Grandstand, sparing only the Clubhouse. But management’s commitment to the sport was made evident by constructing an $800,000 edifice with the capacity for 6,000 people. The new building debuted with the season opener on Jan. 17, and the track has been in a constant state of improvement since.
Tampa industrialist Sam F. Davis — who starred as the quarterback and captain of the 1933 University of Florida football team — was named track President in 1972. In his first year at the helm, Florida Downs amassed a record-wagering handle. The track’s second-most lucrative race, the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds, is named in his honor. His wife Helen (center) is shown visiting the Skye Terrace Dining Room with singer Rosemary Clooney, left, and an unidentified friend.
Davis retired in 1980, the same year New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner became an ownership partner. Steinbrenner’s contributions in elevating the track’s profile were numerous, and he became a highly visible spokesman for the track and the sport until his 1986 departure. The track was renamed Tampa Bay Downs to reflect the region’s solidarity, and a new era ensued.
On Feb. 12, 1981, Julie Krone, then an apprentice jockey and now a Hall of Fame member, won her first career race aboard Lord Farkle (winner’s-circle photo, left).
While the hard-knocking Florida-bred Lord Farkle won six races that year, Krone — a Benton Harbor, Mich., resident who was 17 — would enjoy one of the most storied careers in the history of the turf. Her 3,704 victories, the most by any woman jockey, include the 1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair and the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies aboard Halfbridled.
Krone, who won meeting titles at Belmont Park, Monmouth, and Gulfstream in her career, was the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000. She is also in the National Women’s Hall of Fame beside such iconic individuals as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Jean King.
Another highlight of the 1981 season was the inaugural running of the (then)-$50,000-added Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, won by Paristo, who finished third in the Preakness. In the ensuing years, the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby has grown to a Grade II, $400,000 event, producing a pair of Kentucky Derby winners: Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense in 2007 and third-place finisher Super Saver in 2010.
The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby produced its first Belmont Stakes presented by NYRABets winner in 2017 in Tapwrit, who set a stakes record in his Oldsmar tour de force.
In 1983, Tampa Bay Downs began running periodic Arabian horse races, adding a new dimension. The Arabian-bred program ended in 2003.
The track added a seven-furlong chute in 1984, and a new dirt track was constructed before the 1985-1986 meeting with banking sufficient to provide better drainage and a safer racing surface. Legendary jockey Bill Hartack (right), a five-time Kentucky Derby winner and a member of the Hall of Fame who rode here as an apprentice in the Sunshine Park era, was named a steward.
Thayer and her brother Ferguson took full control of Tampa Bay Downs with a $16.2-million bid at auction a month before the start of the 1986-1987 meeting. When Thayer named controller Lorraine M. King as General Manager, it marked the first time a Thoroughbred track had separate female ownership and management in turf history. The first Sunday card in track history was conducted on Dec. 7, 1986, drawing a crowd of 5,893 and paving the way for ongoing success with Kids and Family Days and Family Fiesta Days.
Mike Manganello, a six-time Oldsmar riding champion who won the 1970 Kentucky Derby aboard Dust Commander, recorded career victory No. 2,500 here aboard Siberian Gold. During the 1987-1988 meeting, Ronnie Allen, Jr. (left), won his third track title in four seasons, becoming the first Tampa Bay Downs jockey to surpass 100 victories during a single season.
Inter-track wagering made its debut in Florida in 1989, enabling Tampa Bay Downs to remain open as a year-round simulcast facility. Also, that season, the Sports Gallery opened, and the Clubhouse Turn Restaurant was enlarged and renovated. Minors were permitted in all areas except the Sports Gallery and wagering lines.
A new inner rail was installed before the 1990-1991 meeting. The following season, the track’s popular Backyard Picnic Area opened, giving families and newcomers a chance to enjoy a day at the races. Tampa Bay Downs added a Z-Alpha display board in the infield to enhance the viewing experience of fans and bettors.
The Tampa Bay Downs winter simulcast signal has proven to be one of the most popular in North America, and by the 1994-1995 meeting, more than 350 outlets were accepting the Oldsmar races, with 540 taking the Tampa Bay Derby card. At the 1996-1997 meeting, it was announced Tampa Bay Downs would remain open seven days a week to host simulcast signals. Attendance increased 4.3 percent, while on-track handle shot up almost 16 percent.
In the spring of 1997, Thayer announced plans to install a 7/8-mile turf course with a quarter-mile chute. The ground was broken on May 14, 1997, the grass was planted Sept. 9, and the course was completed the following spring. The first turf race in Tampa Bay Downs annals was contested on Kentucky Derby Day, May 2, 1998, with hundreds of excited fans watching the action from the infield. The total crowd was 8,669, the second-largest in track history at the time.
The addition of the turf course has provided more opportunities for horsemen and patrons alike. Top trainers such as Christophe Clement, William Mott, Claude “Shug” McGaughey, III, H. Graham Motion, Chad Brown, and Mark Casse have been among the biggest supporters of the turf course.
In 1999, the Clubhouse was totally remodeled, with fan comfort the No. 1 priority. Renovations included central air conditioning, a refurbished elevator, plush carpeting, luxury seating, and countless buckets of fresh paint. The lower floor of the Clubhouse was redesigned with a “Sports Book” motif, and a state-of-the-art sound system was installed throughout the Clubhouse and Grandstand.
Secret Status, a 3-year-old filly owned by William S. Farish and partners, won the 2000 Florida Oaks and captured the Kentucky Oaks, joining Luv Me Luv Me Not (1992) as a winner of both races.
In March of 2003, Tampa Bay Downs launched The Downs Golf Practice Facility, a state-of-the-art, first-of-its-kind golf practice-and-wagering facility. The 22 acres of lighted golf property include 270 yards of open range for full-swing shots, plus putting and short-game areas. The Downs Golf Clubhouse features a fully stocked pro shop (right), snack bar, and wagering terminals, along with numerous TV monitors to enjoy all of the racing action.
The opening of the 2003-2004 season saw the debut of The Silks Poker Room. Now located in opulent splendor on the third floor of the Grandstand, the fully air-conditioned room includes 30 poker tables, with plenty of television monitors, roaming mutuel tellers, table-side beverage service, and in-house massages. Offering various games, high stakes, and no-limit poker, the room is open every day (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Sunday), from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m.-3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday.
Since opening in 2004, The Silks Poker Room has emerged as a prime destination for card-game aficionados of all experience levels and bankroll sizes to test their skills. The Silks Poker Room features every variation of Texas Hold’em, No-Limit Hold’em, Omaha, and Stud Games, as well as thrilling multi-table tournaments. In 2011, Silks introduced the Bay Area Poker Club, which has qualified numerous players for the World Series of Poker.
Daily promotions are a staple inside The Silks Poker Room, which boasts numerous amenities sure to soothe. With cash games and a view of the racetrack finish line from almost every table, The Silks Poker Room offers the best in live entertainment on the west coast of Florida.
Before starting the 2006-2007 meeting, a Daktronics 16:9 ratio, the jumbo video board was installed in the infield (left, during construction), giving patrons an unparalleled view of the action. They were richly rewarded in March that season when a crowd of 10,593 witnessed arguably the most exciting stretch duel in track history, culminating with a nose victory by Street Sense from Any Given Saturday in the then-Grade III Tampa Bay Derby. The Carl Nafzger-trained Street Sense used his Oldsmar success under jockey Calvin Borel as a springboard to victories in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Three years later, the third-place finisher in the Tampa Bay Derby, Super Saver, triumphed in the Run for the Roses for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Borel. The Tampa Bay Derby was awarded Grade II status the following spring. It is one of six graded stakes races conducted annually at Tampa Bay Downs.
Before the 2007-2008 race meet began, Tampa Bay Downs underwent several renovations, including the installation of the Grandstand elevator; the all-new Silks Poker Room, located on the third floor of the Grandstand; and the Party Suite, adjacent to the Silks Poker Room, where new flat-screen TVs were installed.
On Festival Day, March 15, 2008, a record 12,746 fans arrived at the Oldsmar oval to witness Big Truck capture the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby. Tampa Bay Downs had three Eclipse Award winners compete during the 2007-2008 meeting. Rosemary Homeister, Jr., who won an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice in 1992, was a regular fixture in the Jockeys’ Room at the Oldsmar oval, finishing the season second-leading rider overall. Dreaming of Anna, the Eclipse Champion Juvenile Filly of 2006, won the Grade III Endeavour Breeders’ Cup and the Grade III Hillsborough Stakes. War Pass, the 2007 Two-Year-Old Eclipse Champion, competed in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby.
In 2010, reigning multiple-Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti made his 5-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Stakes, losing by a nose to Karelian and Homeister. Following that heart-pounding renewal, the turf event for older horses was elevated to Grade III status the following year.
Hall of Fame trainer William Mott selected Tampa Bay Downs for the first 2011 starts for his 3-year-old filly Royal Delta and 4-year-old colt Drosselmeyer, who had won the 2010 Belmont Stakes and became the first winner of a Triple Crown to compete in Oldsmar subsequently.
Although both fell short locally, Royal Delta went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic in 2011 and 2012, and Drosselmeyer won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic to go with his Belmont triumph.
The 2011-12 season was highlighted by eight-track records and a 3-percent increase in the on-track handle to more than $40-million. Bettors heralded the introduction of Trakus, an electronic system that displays the position and location of each horse during a race.
Before the 2013-14 season, the grandstand was remodeled to include a pub-style gathering place, christened Riders Up! The friendly refreshment center features marble countertops, a candy-apple redwood finish, and various craft beers. Also new on the downstairs level of the grandstand is the Metro Deli, designed to resemble an old-time, big-city eatery.
The improvements continued before the 2014-2015 meeting with the unveiling of a bright, redesigned circular driveway entrance. Featuring tree-lined pathways, garden landscaping, enhanced lighting, benches, and automatic sliding doors signaled a friendly “welcome back” to all when the 89th-anniversary meeting resumed.
Contemporary racing fans and journalists embrace the Downs for its distinctive, country fair-style charm. It is regarded far and wide as one of America’s most pleasant and well-maintained racetracks. The list of sports and entertainment celebrities who have visited Tampa Bay Downs is lengthy, spiking during the six-year tenure of Steinbrenner (right, with opera singer Robert Merrill), who himself drew a crowd every time he came down to the paddock.
The Legends Bar, which includes a museum-quality exhibition of famed Thoroughbred Seabiscuit, became the newest feature on the second floor of the Grandstand. Horsemen enjoyed improvements to the Paddock area, with all-new stalls in the saddling barn ensuring horses’ safety and comfort, and connections. Other facility upgrades at the Oldsmar oval included a refurbished Racing Office on the backstretch and a renovated track kitchen.
In 2013, for the first time, the top three finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby — Verrazano (left), Java’s War, and Falling Sky — competed in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Verrazano also won the Grade I Wood Memorial and Grade I Haskell Invitational, and Java’s War won the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. On Feb. 2 of 2013, Tampa Bay Downs staged three graded stakes on the same card for the first time: the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes; the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks; and the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes, the latter two on the turf.
Tampa Bay Downs signed an agreement with TVG/HRTV to broadcast the meeting, sending the signal to countless new fans.
Meanwhile, Phase Two of the track’s ongoing, environmentally conscious green initiative continued to gain momentum by introducing a state-of-the-art geothermal HVAC system designed to save energy and costs while requiring almost no maintenance.
On June 30 and July 1 of 2013, Tampa Bay Downs introduced the Summer Festival of Racing, which enabled the track to control its simulcast income by being classified as a year-round live-racing facility. Featuring a $5,000 Jockeys’ Challenge, the Summer Festival led to a 15-percent increase in purses, including an all-time high benchmark of $24,000 for maiden special weight races for the 2013-2014 season.
During the 2013-2014 meeting, Jamie Ness (right) won his record eighth consecutive training title by sending out 53 winners, while Antonio Gallardo, a native of Spain, won his first of three consecutive jockeys title by riding 124 winners and surviving a ding-dong battle with four-time leading jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the ownership group of Rich and Karen Papiese, captured its fifth consecutive owner’s title with 45 victories.
Track officials established the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus, with $1-million to be awarded to the owners of any horse winning the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Vinceremos — owned by WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables — won the Davis and finished second to Ring Weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby before finishing off the board in the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, a fan who picked Vinceremos to win the Davis was allowed to win a $100,000 bonus.
In tandem with Equus Technology Group, Tampa Bay Downs instituted the Live It Up Challenge handicapping contest, won by Glenn Wilson of nearby Westchase. Wilson was the only player to stay alive through the duration of the event; he won $1,500 and a seat at the 2015 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in January in Las Vegas.
On March 29, Tampa Bay Downs played host to the first Jockeys and Jeans barbecue luncheon to benefit the Permanently Disabled Riders Fund. Among those in attendance were six-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Mike Manganello; Hall of Famers Pat Day, Walter Blum, Jacinto Vasquez, and Bill Boland; Ramon Dominguez; and early female pioneers Barbara Jo Rubin, Diane Crump, and Mary Russ, as well as several disabled former riders.
In what is believed to be a first in the sport, brothers (left to right) Juan, Fernando, and Walter De La Cruz of Huancavelica, Peru, all rode winners on a single card on Feb. 21, 2014, at Tampa Bay Downs.
L.J. McKanas, a trainer, competing at Tampa Bay Downs for the first time, delighted racegoers by appearing as a contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor.
Track announcer Richard Grunder marked his 30th season at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2013-2014 meeting.
The racing action was fast and furious from the outset during the 2014-2015 meeting. Jockey Antonio Gallardo rode five winners on the first stakes Saturday of the season, and 2-year-old Catalina Red set a stakes record of 1:09.32 in the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes.
Gallardo’s success would be a recurrent theme. The native of Cadiz, Spain, rode five winners again on Dec. 31 and finished the meeting with 147 winners to set a new track record and capture his second consecutive riding title.
Gallardo was joined at the top by trainer Jamie Ness, who took home an unprecedented ninth consecutive Oldsmar crown with 45 victories.
The Ness-trained 6-year-old gelding Brother Pat became the first horse to sweep all four legs of the Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series, never trailing at a single point of call in any of his victories.
Trainer Todd Pletcher won the Tampa Bay Derby for the third time, capturing the Grade II $350,000 showcase with Carpe Diem. The colt is owned in partnership by Stonestreet Stables, which also owns Ocean Knight, winner of the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes. The 35th renewal of the Tampa Bay Derby headlined a March 7 Festival Day program that included the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes; and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes, making it the richest day in track history.
A crowd of 10,379 watched Carpe Diem and fellow Tampa Bay Derby participant Danzig Moon compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands via simulcast on May 2. That race was won, of course, by eventual Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
Professional wrestler Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes had his hands full with jockey Jerry Harrison during this mid-1970s visit to the track.
An outstanding stakes program at Tampa Bay Downs produced several record-breaking performances. In addition to his Inaugural Stakes victory, trainer Chad Stewart’s Catalina Red set stakes and track record in winning the Dec. 27 Pasco Stakes for 2-year-olds, speeding home seven furlongs in 1:21.40 under jockey Daniel Centeno. That same day, 2-year-old filly Irish Jasper set a stakes mark of 1:22.41 in the Gasparilla for trainer Derek Ryan.
Bold Thunder established a course and stakes record of 54.63 in the five-furlong Turf Dash, the fifth victory in the race for Centeno. Evidently, a 4-year-old filly trained by Roy Lerman set a stakes mark in the Florida Cup Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf of 1:40.93 at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth. The 4-year-old gelding Special Envoy set a mile-and-an-eighth turf course record of 1:46.55 on March 18.
On March 28, trainer Gerald Bennett saddled career winner No. 3,500, the 3-year-old filly Once More for Love. New York native Andrew Demsky was named host for the track’s “Paddock Preview” show, taking over from Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn, who continued in her executive role while shifting her focus to other responsibilities.
Tampa Bay Downs purchased the Tampa Greyhound Track in January of 2015.
On Dec. 15, 2014, members of the Tampa Bay Downs jockey colony traveled to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg to visit youngsters with potentially life-limiting diseases. The group included (left to right): Pablo Morales; Ronnie Allen, Jr.; Janelle Campbell; Antonio Gallardo; Keiber Coa, foreground; Dean Butler; and Daniel Centeno.
Before the 2015-2016 meeting, Lambholm South, a 1,830-acre Thoroughbred facility located in Reddick, Fla., near Ocala, agreed to become the track’s showcase race Grade II title sponsor $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds. Lambholm South also sponsors the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes, and the track’s annual Festival Preview Day card.
Destin, who had won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes four weeks earlier, added the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in stakes and track-record time of 1:42.82 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth. He later finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and second by a nose to Creator in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.
On the same day as the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Grass Female Tepin (left, being led into the winner’s circle by owner Robert Masterson, with Julien Leparoux aboard) staged an awesome rally from 18 lengths behind to defeat Isabella Sings in the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes, which had been elevated from Grade III status beforehand by the American Graded Stakes Committee. The 5-year-old Tepin’s time for the mile-and-an-eighth was a stake and course-record time of 1:46.26. Tepin had won the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour four weeks previously.
The popularity of the Tampa Bay Downs simulcast signal continued to spread, with a 5.1-percent increase in average daily interstate wagering to $3.71 million. All-sources average daily handle increased 3.5 percent, to $4.16 million. Gerald Bennett saddled 51 winners to capture the training title, ending a nine-year run atop the standings for Jamie Ness (Bennett and Ness tied for first place during the 2010-2011 meeting). Antonio Gallardo rode 135 winners to claim the jockey title, winning five races on Feb. 24, including a dead-heat.
On March 5, Bennett (right) tied a track record by saddling four winners from four starters.
Three jockeys achieved career milestones during the 2015-2016 meeting. Jose Ferrer rode career winner No. 4,000 on Feb. 14; Scott Spieth earned victory No. 4,500 on April 10, and Dean Butler reached the 2,000-victory mark on April 22.
The 2016-2017 meeting was highlighted by record-breaking performances in the track’s two “Road to the Kentucky Derby” races, the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, and a maiden-breaking performance by a future classic winner.
In the Sam F. Davis, McCraken, trained by Ian Wilkes and ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr., set a Tampa Bay Downs main-track record for a mile-and-a-sixteenth, winning in 1:42.45.
Four weeks later, with McCraken on the shelf with a minor injury, Sam F. Davis runner-up Tapwrit — from the barn of Todd Pletcher and ridden by Jose Ortiz — bettered Destin’s stakes record with a time of 1:42.36 (McCraken’s short-lived track record had already been lowered to 1:41.75 on the Festival Day card by another Pletcher trainee, 5-year-old Stanford, in the Challenger Stakes). Tapwrit’s victory was the third in a row in the Tampa Bay Derby for Pletcher and his fifth overall.
Three months later, Tapwrit (left, powering home in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby) became the first Oldsmar product in history to win the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRABets.
Amazingly enough, considering his perennial wealth of equine talent, the best horse Pletcher brought to the Oldsmar oval in 2017 might have been a winless 3-year-old he entered in a mile-and-40-yard maiden special weight race on Jan. 25. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who had ridden the previous day on the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s “Day of Champions” card, made the short trek to Tampa Bay Downs to ride Always Dreaming to an eye-opening 11 1/2-length victory.
A little more than 14 weeks later, on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, joining Street Sense and Super Saver as horses to win the Run for the Roses after competing at Tampa Bay Downs.
Tampa Bay Downs increased the total purse money for its six Florida Cup Day races by 33 percent to $600,000. The track also attracted new title sponsors in EG Vodka and 14 Hands Winery for the 15th annual event for Florida-breds, held on a Sunday for the third time.
World Approval, a 5-year-old gelding bred by Florida horsewoman Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Stud and owned by Live Oak Plantation, won the Florida Cup EG Vodka Turf Classic. He captured the Breeders’ Cup Mile in November at Del Mar for Weber, trainer Mark Casse and jockey John Velazquez.
Daniel Centeno (pictured, right) captured his sixth Tampa Bay Downs jockeys crown by riding 102 winners, tying Mike Manganello for the most titles in track history. Centeno finished 17 victories ahead of first-year Oldsmar jockey Edwin Gonzalez.
The 25-year-old Gonzalez achieved a remarkable feat on March 10 when he rode six winners, second in track history only to Richard DePass, 7-for-7 on March 15, 1980. One of Gonzalez’s victories was a dead-heat, and he also had a third-place finish.
Another familiar face finished atop the trainer standings as Gerald Bennett saddled 50 winners for his second consecutive title and third overall. Past two-time champion Kathleen O’Connell was second with 35 winners.
Bennett tied a track record held by himself and two others on Dec. 7 by saddling four winners from four starters, a feat he previously accomplished on March 5. He also accounted for four stakes victories during the 2016-2017 meeting: with R Angel Katelyn in the Sandpiper Stakes, the Gasparilla, and the Florida Cup Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Chance Luck in the Inaugural.
In the owner standings, the Ridenjac Racing outfit of Dennis Ward led the pack with 22 victories, seven more than 2015-2016 champion Jagger, Inc.
On Feb. 9, one lucky bettor collected a track-record payout of $93,159.30 for correctly selecting each winner in the Pick-5 wager. The winning combination was 1-1-2-9-8.
On April 22, the 6-year-old mare Laur Net was claimed by trainer Aldana Gonzalez for new owner Loooch Racing Stables for $62,500, an all-time track-record claiming price.
In April, Tampa Bay Downs announced it donated $50,000 to Oldsmar Cares, a non-profit organization that provides a hand up to needy citizens. The money was earmarked toward constructing a new building with an expanded food pantry, storage room, clothes closet area, classroom space, and career-counseling office.
The 2017-2018 meeting saw Gerald Bennett withstand a major challenge from Kathleen O’Connell to win his third consecutive training crown and fourth overall, with 53 victories. Antonio Gallardo returned to win his fourth riding title with 120 winners, including five on Feb. 2. That feat was also accomplished on April 7 by Samy Camacho, who finished second in 100 victories.
The third jockey to ride five winners on a single card was Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano, whose haul on March 25 included four Florida Cup Day stakes.
Jose A. Bracho was the track’s leading apprentice jockey with 17 victories; he added 14 after becoming a journeyman. Rich Averill of Bradenton, Fla., was the leading owner, sending out 19 winners alone and in various partnerships.
After returning from a spill at Delaware Park, where he suffered a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs, and three fractured vertebrae, Jose Ferrer won the 69th annual George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in voting by his fellow riders. The Woolf Award honors a rider whose career and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
A festive crowd of 11,055, the second-largest in track history, attended the May 5 Kentucky Derby Day card. Helped by adding four new stakes for 3-year-olds sponsored by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, Tampa Bay Downs presented its richest stakes schedule ever, with 28 stakes worth $3.65-million in purse money.
Purse money for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby was increased to $400,000, and the March 10 Festival Day program included five stakes worth $1-million.
Visitors were impressed by a new 17-foot-by-30-foot Daktronics LED high-definition video display board rising above the infield tote board. Also enhancing customer convenience were technology upgrades allowing fans to wager, order food and drinks and purchase tickets for special events directly from the track’s website, www.tampabaydowns.com.
Tampa Bay Downs added a Spanish-language link to the website that enabled fans to acquire online program pages printed in Spanish and featured live race-day podcasts.
“Tracking Our History,” a museum-style display located behind the main Grandstand entrance, opened to rave reviews at the outset of the 2018-2019 meeting. The display consists of a video retrospective and a glass-enclosed collection of memorabilia and milestones from the track’s early days to the present. Other improvements included a redesigned main entrance; a waterproof, vinyl plank floor throughout the Grandstand; and banners from sponsor Touch Vodka honoring many of the sport’s great champions, including the locally-based 1995 Eclipse Award Champion Sprinter, Not Surprising.
Tampa Bay Downs introduced several promotions designed to acquaint track newcomers to the majesty and excitement of Thoroughbred racing. The Tampa Bay Downs Owners Club contest gave fans a chance to experience the thrills of ownership by allowing anyone who selected the winner of a designated race to join a fantasy stable “owning” the horse, rewarding them with free admission, a program, a mutuel voucher, and concession stand discounts each time the horse ran.
The track’s “College Days” essay contest aimed to generate fresh ideas from students on how racetracks can successfully market horse racing to a new generation of fans. A total of 95 students submitted essays, with five winners receiving $2,000 scholarships awarded through the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Educational Foundation.
The action on the racetrack came fast and furious. Gerald Bennett earned his fourth consecutive training title, sending out 69 winners, while Samy Camacho won his first jockeys crown, riding 123 winners.
The largest crowd to ever attend Tampa Bay Downs on a Kentucky Derby Day, 11,924, watched Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus finish third in the 145th Run for the Roses, behind Country House and Code of Honor.
Jockey Pablo Morales, who won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 9 aboard Well Defined for trainer Kathleen O’Connell, went 5-for-5 on the May 4 card, including two stakes victories. Camacho rode five winners on a single card on Jan. 26.
Florida-bred 3-year-old colt Win Win Win established a 7-furlong track record of 1:20.89 in winning the Pasco Stakes. Another Florida-bred, World of Trouble, won the 7-furlong Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Marion County Florida Sire Stakes by 13 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track a track-record Beyer Speed Figure of 109.
Toward the latter portion of the 2019-2020 season, Tampa Bay Downs and the entire Thoroughbred racing industry faced an unprecedented challenge when the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic resulted in a shutdown of business and recreation throughout much of the world. The Oldsmar oval raced without spectators from March 18 through the meeting duration, while several racetracks were forced to close entirely, and others had their openings postponed.
The Tampa Bay Downs signal remained popular with account-wagering bettors, allowing the track to receive two date extensions from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and sustaining horsemen and horsewomen. Originally scheduled as a 90-day meeting, the 2019-2020 campaign was capped after a track-record 111 performances.
Before those events, on March 7, 49-1 shot King Guillermo won the 40th edition of the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. A crowd of 10,021 contributed to total wagering of $13,155,349 on the Festival Day card; the third-highest all-sources handle in track history. King Guillermo was ridden by Venezuelan jockey Samy Camacho, trained by the rider’s countryman, Juan Carlos Avila, and owned by former major league baseball slugger Victor Martinez, also from Venezuela.
Familiar faces topped the standings on June 30, the final day of the meeting. Antonio Gallardo rode 122 winners to earn his fifth Jockeys title in seven seasons, and Gerald Bennett captured his fifth consecutive Trainers title (and sixth overall) with 61 victories. Bennett also won his first Owners championship, as his Winning Stables — as a sole entity and in various partnerships — sent out 24 winners, five more than runners-up Godolphin and Juan Arriagada.
When the 2020-2021 meeting resumed on Nov. 25, track management mandated temperature checks and required horsemen, jockeys, and fans to wear masks and observe social distancing — rules that had been in place since July 2, when the track reopened for simulcast wagering.
Four 10-percent purse increases eased the anxieties of horsemen concerned about the lingering effects of COVID-19. The fourth hike, which took effect April 14, raised purse money by $3,000 a race, with maiden special weight races offering $29,000. Previous boosts took place on Dec. 16, Feb. 3, and Feb. 20.
The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 6 produced an unexpected yet popular result. Making his third lifetime start, and first, on a dirt surface, Helium rallied on the far turn and held off a belated bid by Hidden Stash to post a 15-1 upset under jockey Jose Ferrer, a 56-year-old Tampa resident who had not won graded stakes in 10 years. Ferrer’s first Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory and the second for trainer Mark Casse, who watched the races in the early 1970s at Tampa Bay Downs from the back of his father’s truck before children were allowed in the track. The 12-race Festival Day Presented by Lambholm South card generated a total mutuel handle of $15,229,366, a single-day track record.
A few weeks later, Tampa Bay Downs followers were stunned to learn announcer Richard Grunder would retire on May 2 after 37 years behind the microphone. Grunder, who was the longest-tenured horse racing announcer in the United States, called his first race at age 20 in August of 1973 at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He called 37,587 races at Tampa Bay Downs, and after his final race, the jockeys and their valets lined up in the winner’s circle waved toward the press box and shouted encouragement to the man whose voice is the only one most Oldsmar followers have known.
The competition for leading jockey was spirited throughout the meeting. Most experts called the 2020-2021 riding colony the best in the track’s history, but by midseason, Samy Camacho and Antonio Gallardo had separated themselves from the pack. Camacho rode four winners on the May 2 card to forge a 107-103 advantage, capturing his second title in three seasons and depriving Gallardo of a record-tying sixth crown. Gallardo rode five winners on Dec. 5 for an unprecedented sixth time. The trainers’ race was not as suspenseful, as Gerald Bennett sent out 56 winners, 22 more than runner-up Jose H. Delgado, to earn his sixth consecutive title and seventh overall. Along the way, Bennett passed the late Frank H. Merrill, Jr., as the No. 1 Canadian-born trainer in history with his 3,975th winner. Bennett also won his second consecutive Leading Owner title, with his Winning Stables concern scoring 27 victories, alone and in different partnerships.
On Jan. 2, six-time Oldsmar jockey champion Daniel Centeno thrilled his supporters by notching his 3,000th victory in North America aboard Lucy’s Town in the Fillies and Mares Division of the Tampa Turf Test. Centeno, who rode 847 winners in Venezuela, is No. 1 all-time at Tampa Bay Downs with 1,429 victories and 54 stakes triumphs entering the 2021-2022 meeting. Gallardo achieved a major career milestone of his own on Feb. 3 with a career victory. No. 2,000 on 5-year-old mare Do What It Takes. Both Lucy’s Town and Do What It Takes were trained by Jose H. Delgado. Gallardo became the 11th active Tampa Bay Downs jockey with 2,000 or more victories.