As Thoroughbred fans and players look forward to Wednesday’s resumption of racing at Keeneland Race Course, as do we, I am also lamenting the absence of racing at Tampa Bay Downs, whose season concluded one week ago.
The “racing calendar” dictates that last Wednesday wasn’t the end of the 2019-2020 season but rather, by definition, the beginning of the 2020-2021 season that resumes in earnest in November.
The everyday horseplayer will miss it, especially this one. Originally, I attracted to the product because it was consistently ranked among the Top Ten Racetracks in America by the currently inactive Horseplayers Association of North America.
Like most Tampa Bay fans, I came for its fan friendly large fields and reasonable takeout rates. But I stayed for the racing. Why? Because, on balance, Tampa Bay’s racing surfaces, both dirt and turf, are bias free.
Whatever the class level or surface, atmospherics notwithstanding, race dynamics develop predictably in Oldsmar and form holds well. Of course, there are upsets which is all part of the game–the part that makes it worthwhile to be involved in the first place.
Knowing what you can expect from the time the latch is sprung, particularly on my favorite American turf courses, keeps me interested on a daily basis, whether it’s a maiden allowances, a graded stakes, or a lower-class claimer. And in this game, that’s an upset.
Tampa carded a record 330 grass races this year. “Compared to Gulfstream, we have four lanes as opposed to six. But our cooler weather allows us to over-seed in winter with Rye Grass. When it gets warmer and that burns off, Bermuda Grass takes over.
“I depend heavily on Tom McLaughlin, our Vice-President of Track Surfaces who’s been here for 30 years,” explained Vice-President/General Manager Peter Berube. “He maintains the entire grounds, backside and frontside.
“We’re proud of the longevity of our entire staff many of whom have been with us for 25 years. We’re proud of the entire team, the diversity of our product, and how it has improved over time.”
Horsemen have taken notice, especially this past decade. The turf program has proven so popular that Chad Brown, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey and Graham Motion, to name a few, invade regularly. Jonathan Thomas maintained a sizable division this year.
When Berube first arrived there was one graded stakes and now there are seven, many of which have grown via a series of event days which is, of course, the trend everywhere in the world.
Berube wants to keep the momentum going: “I’d like to grow the number of graded stakes to 10. Next year I want to bring back Florida Cup Day for local owners and breeders. It’s an opportunity for Florida-breds to compete in six races for a total of $600,000.”
Thoroughbred racing owes a debt to the tracks in North Florida and South Florida that helped keep the sport alive since mid-March, at least until such time that other tracks began to slowly reopen as the summer of 2020 loomed.
One would expect as much from Gulfstream Park, a venue that over the years grew out of shadow of Hialeah Park to become this country’s pre-eminent winter signal. And it has the Florida Derby winners, among other events, to back that up.
Tampa Bay Downs is not at that level but it’s the little racetrack that could and did, helping grow the popularity of the sport while the sports world was on injured reserve. In racing, it is possible to social distance and wear masks while conducting essential work.
And, so, Tampa Bay did its thing while helping to expose sports fans to horse racing for the first time. It made a favorable impression for the sport and in doing so helped its own bottom line.
In the pre-pandemic 2018-2019, total daily handle averaged $3.8 million over 90 days of live racing. With 20 more racing days this year and with many tracks closed, that figure grew to $4.4 million at the 2019-2020 session.
Year over year, total co-mingled handle went from $342.4 million to $489.2 million, impressive even with less competition and 20 more racing days. Of greater note, field size grew from 8.08 starters per race to 8.27 despite carding 132 more races, higher than the national average.
Sadly, Coronavirus was good for business. With virtually all tracks outside Florida closed–the short window for Santa Anita notwithstanding–Tampa Bay handled an average $5.1 million since March 18, the first of 49 days it raced without fans.
Last Wednesday, Tampa, one of 14 recognizable regional venues on the docket, handled close to $3.9 million on 10 races, paying out $129,000 in purses. This was not an atypical weekday occurrence.
“It’s a challenge trying to card daily live racing even in normal times,” explained Berube. “We’re happy we were able to keep the momentum going. You need to adapt day to day, but I’d rather card fewer races than use races with short fields,” he added.
Further aspirations? “I go to Saratoga every year and I admire the amenities they put in for fans at the top of the stretch. And I’d like to renovate our box seat area, bring it to the next level with interactive screens for betting, whatever we can do for our fans.”