Tampa Bay Downs wrapped up its 86th Thoroughbred racing season the weekend of May 5-6 with a memorable two-day celebration.

A festive crowd of 9,028, the second-largest of the meet, watched and wagered on 12 live races and the simulcast of the Kentucky Derby on the final Saturday of the 2011-12 campaign. The following day, the 92-day meeting drew to a close as the track recognized loyal patrons with the annual Fan Appreciation Day activities.

The Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. operation of Richard and Karen Papiese, which recorded a third consecutive title as leading owner, marked the conclusion of the season with generous donations of $10,000 to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and $5,000 to both Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc. (TROT) and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division.

A season marked by outstanding on-track accomplishments – including eight track records, the second-fastest Tampa Bay Derby in history and the emergence of popular star sprint filly It’s Me Mom – has already whetted appetites for Tampa Bay Downs’ 2012-13 Thoroughbred meeting to begin.

On the financial front, track management, staff and horsemen hurdled some obstacles, enabling Tampa Bay Downs to post on-track attendance and handle figures in line with the previous year.

Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube said a confluence of factors slowed the track’s growth, leading to a decrease in average field size – from 9.11 to 8.54 runners a race – and a decline in all-sources handle.

“I am optimistic every season, but we knew 2011-12 would present several new challenges,” Berube continued.

For starters, Gulfstream Park moved its opening day ahead to coincide with the Dec. 3 kickoff of live racing at Tampa Bay Downs. Competition for horses from Gulfstream and other tracks – several offering purses enhanced by casino revenues – and the steady decrease in recent years in the annual U.S. Thoroughbred foal crop made it harder to fill races.

Wagering handle dropped as a result. “Not only were we impacted by Gulfstream opening earlier and the decline in field size,” Berube said, “because of the mild winter, there were almost no cancellations at other tracks, increasing our competition for simulcast wagering on a daily basis.”

While average daily all-sources handle on the live product dropped 10.91 percent this season – from $4,760,450 during the 2010-11 meeting to $4,149,073 – about half of that decline was due to the lower average field size.

“Lacking the same revenue streams as many tracks – such as slot machines and other forms of casino gambling – presents additional challenges ,” Berube said. “Also, not having a deal with TVG may have been a factor in our final numbers.

“But with all of that, we still averaged about $4.15 million a day, which again made us the fourth most popular winter signal in the country and placed us more than $1 million ahead of the fifth and sixth-place tracks,” Berube said.

Berube was able to point to several bright spots, including negligible drop-offs in average attendance (from 3,195 to 3,148) and live on-track handle (from $226,855 to $219,842).

For the season, 289,609 patrons passed through the turnstiles, wagering an average of $127.56 per person on live racing and simulcasts. That figure represented a slight increase from the previous year. Total on-track handle for the season (including simulcast wagering) actually increased by almost 3 percent, from $39,143,522 to $40,245,422.

There was good news for horsemen, too, despite the handle decline on the live signal. Average daily purses paid increased from $160,944 to $162,320, mostly thanks to a minimal decline in overall pari-mutuel revenue.

Looking ahead, Berube plans to address those areas he can control while facing the evolving pari-mutuel industry head-on. “We look forward to weighing our options, tweaking a few things and beginning preparations for a strong 2012-13 season,” he said.

Thanks to the mild winter and lack of rain, the demand from horsemen and the efforts of track superintendent Tom McLaughlin and his staff in maintaining the turf course, Tampa Bay Downs carded a record 262 turf races this season.

Business was also healthy on the backside. In addition to the increase in purses, 279 horses were claimed, a 20-percent increase from 2010-11.

As always, on-track activity provided scores of rich memories to last Tampa Bay Downs fans until a new season arrives. Attached are some of those highlights.