In his 14th year, the son of Paul Berube, retired head of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the sport’s security arm, the youthfully fit 44-year-old has witnessed the kind of growth that must be the envy of the racing industry. Berube believes the impetus for this success came 11 years ago when Tampa’s own track maintenance crew installed a turf course.
A review of Tampa’s history hints this country track on Florida’s left coast always might have been destined for good things. It began when two partners opened Tampa Downs in 1926. One of them, Col. Matt Winn, went on to become the promotional genius behind the success of the Kentucky Derby a decade later.
Upon the retirement of Sam F. Davis in 1980, the track was renamed Tampa Bay Downs and a year later Budweiser sponsored the inaugural Tampa Bay Derby, the same year an apprentice named Julie Krone won her first race en route to a Hall of Fame career. Last year, Street Sense became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win the Kentucky Derby after making his three-year-old debut in this track’s signature event. Tampa handled $10.9-million from all sources that day. It had arrived.
“We wanted to attract major outfits with better horses and they wanted turf. So we installed the turf course and it’s made all the difference." And so the major outfits came and brought with them better stock. That’s reflected in the fact that purses have increased every year since.
Field size isn’t the only number that’s taken a small hit. Weekday on-track attendance and handle is down. “We’ve seen some growth in our export signals but when you look at sales tax figures and hotel receipts state-wide, it’s clear that a lot of people haven’t come to Florida this year. Weekends are good. Our Poker Room is attracting a younger demographic, but the fixed-income people we usually get are hurting.”
In addition to the Poker Room which, by statute, must pay half its profits into the purse account, Tampa has taken other measures to drive business. It installed The Downs, a 17-acre Practice Golf Facility featuring a short game area, golf schools, Jr. golf camps, and a one of its kind driving range with self-service betting machines. A miniature golf course is on the drawing board.
Tampa Bay Downs is not a typical “racino” that segregates casino patrons from the racetrack. The Silks Poker Room has simulcast monitors surrounding its 26 tables, live betting windows, self-service machines and an unobstructed, birds-eye view of the races. “We want new people to come out to the racetrack,” said Tampa’s vice-president and general manager.
And horseplayers were not ignored in the expansion process. Tampa’s first elevator was installed in the grandstand last year and Berube promises an aggressive capital expenditure plan will allow for continuing major renovations.
But will Tampa, like some other tracks, run cheaper stock to save purse money? “Tomorrow would be a good example. Last year we carded three ‘beaten claimers,’ this year none. We want to maintain structure and don’t want purses fluctuating from [condition] book to book. Horsemen love five-horse fields. That’s not our philosophy. What fills is what goes.”
In December 2006, seven riders suspected of being involved in betting rings or working independently were told to leave the grounds. No evidence of wrongdoing was found and recently, when five of the riders applied for re-admission, all were denied. All racetracks have the right of exclusion if it feels the decision is in their best interests.
“Integrity is a prime concern. Without it there is no racing. Until the investigation is complete, [the ban] must continue. That’s Tampa’s position. You can‘t tell the FBI what to do.”
In addition to the Tampa Derby, the little track that could will offer the Hillsborough Stakes, Dreaming of Anna vs. Lure’s Princess Redux, two of the best turf fillies in training. Ninety minutes later, Nick Zito will try to emulate the Tampa Derby victory of the 2006 juvenile champion with the 2007 champion.
In a game where the good news is routinely outdistanced by the bad, and the only measures of success are the bottom line and fan perception, the notion that Tampa Bay Downs must be doing something right is indisputable.