What is clearafter Saturday's opener is that people in North Florida like horse racing, too. Maybe it’s because of the Oldsmar track’s proximity to Ocala horse country, maybe not. But the horseplayer friendly approach of its management, much like Gulfstream’s, is at the core of its continued growth.
While the quality of the horseflesh in starkly different than the world class fare offered at Gulfstream, Tampa has grown in popularity due to its large, competitive fields, an excellent turf product, and a belief that lower takeout is good for business.
Tampa Bay Downs is one of the fastest growing—if not still the fastest--simulcast signals in the country. Its takeout rates, among other variables, have earned it a #2 ranking behind Keeneland among 68 racetracks rated by the Horseplayers Association of North America.
And for the second consecutive year, Tampa either was embracing competition from downstate, or doing a little coat-tail riding. Either way, it was a plan well executed and proved to be a box office success on and off track. The little track that could is still getting it done, and that’s a winning outcome for Florida racing.
The second thing you notice is a first. Tampa visibly embraced social media and became the first racetrack to post tweets on its simulcast feed. Appearing in a format TV types call a lower third, tweet messages from industry types and fans, ranging from handicapping advice to customer observations, appear on screen. Good stuff.
In the main, it worked. Providing it’s not overdone to the point of distraction and is limited to opinions germane to the upcoming race or races, tweet information reaches all audiences, but never should it compromise observing last-minute warm-ups or odds fluctuations and such.
A tweet schedule that begins immediately after the post parade and ends with about three minutes to post seems prudent. Things that may be good for business shouldn’t be bad for business because of possible logistical conflicts.
The composition of the opening day program was lifted right out of the Churchill Downs playbook, the first venue to turn a racing program limited to juveniles into a special event. Tampa Bay Downs followed their lead and hosted a similar program for the first time in 2007.
On balance, Saturday’s races contained more quality than the typical Tampa Bay program. And, in addition to the usual array of talented Florida-based horsemen, trainers more closely associated with the “good horse circuit” were also represented.
Indeed, Bill Mott, Wesley Ward and Graham Motion each had horses win on opening day. In fact, Motion had two, one a Flaxman Holdings European import. Mott runner, from the powerful Juddmonte string, last raced at Belmont Park.
Noteworthy were the results and performances in the two juvenile stakes, one for each sex. Ladies first:
Trainer Joan Scott defined her Smoke Glacken filly aptly when she called Cor Cor a “rocket.” And that she is, owning a three length advantage seemingly one second out of the gate before relaxing into Scott Spieth’s rating hold.
While the inclination might be to keep her sprinting--driving hard to hold her advantage at the wire—the connections should consider this: While no runoff, she her opening gambit was :21.95 quarter-mile into a half of :44.40, en route to a 1:10.02 Sandpiper stakes record.
If you run fast early you don’t run fast late, of course, but that’s not the entire story. At Keeneland previously, she earned an excellent Equiform Energy Figure, i.e., distributing her reserves very efficiently.
That kind of debut in general diminishes the chances for a regression in a subsequent start and, all else being equal, gives an indication that stretching out to route is viable, no matter how counterintuitive to the visual evidence.
Purple Egg, meanwhile, was a revelation, taking the Inaugural Stakes by a length in a stakes record 1:09.93 after the rapid favorite, Brave Dave, set the table in :23.07 and :45.77 before a final quarter-mile in a worthy :24.16.
It was the third career win in as many starts for the gelded son of Lion Heart, getting the ultimate equipment change after having been scratched twice after running off in two Monmouth post parades, once after trying to mount the lead pony.
That kind of behavior limits your options, explained part owner Margo Flynn, Tampa Vice President of Marketing and Publicity but better known to fans as Tampa’s paddock analyst.
Given two stakes records, running lines from the four other dirt races gave an indication that for the second straight year the track no longer resembles your father’s Tampa Bay Downs. The ground yielded fast times all day.
Purple Egg rallied from third. Two other dirt winners were second at the penultimate point of call and the remaining three all had the lead by that station. Those players expecting a Belmont Balcony move to victory were ripping up tickets post-race.
The changes in race dynamics caused by a quicker surface will, deliberately intended or not, make shipping into Tampa a lot more viable for horsemen looking for winning spots: Horsemen generally are reluctant to ship into what resembles a plowed field.
This was the second year the NoFla track opened on the same day as Gulfstream. Gulfstream handled an all-sources opening day record of $12.2; Tampa’s $4.1 million from all-sources topped its 2011 opening. Good weather helped attract a crowd of 5,100. Hard to envision doing any better than that.