Tampa Bay Downs - from afterthought to success

By Bill Heller

Slowly, yet surely, Tampa Bay Downs is evolving from that “other track in Florida” into a viable winter/spring option for good and even great horses and horsemen.  “We were an afterthought,” Tampa Bay Downs Vice-President and General Manager Pete Berube said. “But we’ve been able to dispel that stigmatism the last few years.”

            Maybe it was the lush turf course added in 1997. Or the continuing development of a three-year-old stakes program highlighted by the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, which attracted Bluegrass Cat in 2006 and Street Sense and Any Given Saturday in 2007. Adding a 22-acre, state-of-the-art golf practice facility - with wagering available in the pro shop - and the Silks Card Room didn’t hurt.

            The bottom line is that track ownership and management has made a commitment to make the only track on the west coast of Florida an attractive destination for horsemen from December through May. “It’s changed, and it’s a good thing,” said trainer Jane Cibelli, who has been at Tampa Bay Downs since 1994 and was the eighth leading trainer there last year. “There was no money here before. Horses came from small tracks where the competition wasn’t so tough. Now those horses are having a tougher time. You see a better class of horse.”

            You don’t get much classier than Bluegrass Cat, Street Sense and Any Given Saturday. Bluegrass Cat was attempting to give trainer Todd Pletcher his second victory in the Tampa Bay Derby following Limehouse’s win in 2004, but he was upset on the track’s Festival Day by Deputy Glitters. Bluegrass Cat then finished second in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes.

            In the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby, Pletcher’s Any Given Saturday and Street Sense, trained by Carl Nafzger, staged an epic head-to-head battle through the stretch before Street Sense prevailed by a nose. Street Sense went on to win the Kentucky Derby, Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers. Any Given Saturday finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby then won the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes, the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational and the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap in his first start against older horses.

            Pletcher, seeking his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer, cited two reasons he continues to use the Tampa Bay Derby as an early Kentucky Derby prep for his top three-year-olds. “It has the reputation as a very safe track,” Pletcher said. “And, more important for me, is that they offer a mile-and-a-sixteenth opportunity. To me that’s really important. With developing three-year-olds, you want to go that mile-and-a-sixteenth, and the Tampa Bay Derby is a good one to do that. In some ways, it worked out well for Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Saturday, as well as for Limehouse. They didn’t win the Derby, but I think that it had a lot to do with their positive development.”

            Track management, of course, couldn’t be happier to host Pletcher’s three-year-old colts in Tampa. “Todd’s been able to have success over here,” Berube said. “I’m glad were in his rotation. But it didn’t just happen. It’s been a plan we’ve had for a number of years: developing the three-year-old program. It can only help us in the future.”

            In the past, Tampa Bay Downs couldn’t even settle on its own name. The track opened in 1926 as Tampa Downs, then became Sunshine Park in 1947 and was frequently referred to as “the Santa Anita of the South.” In 1965, the track was renamed Florida Downs, which stuck until 1980 when the name was changed back to Tampa Downs. When  evotook over as owner in 1986, the track was rechristened Tampa Bay Downs.

            Thayer, a 66-year-old attorney and native of Tampa, is also the president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation and the University of South Florida Foundation. Previously, she served as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association from 1999-2001 and has owned Thoroughbreds with her brother, Howard Ferguson, since 1986.

            Under Thayer and Berube’s stewardship, Tampa Bay Downs has prospered. Berube, whose retired dad Paul was a long-time president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, joined the Tampa Bay Downs management team in 1995 as comptroller. He was promoted to vice president of finance in 1998, then to assistant general manager in 2000, and finally to his present positions on May, 2001. He defers credit for Tampa Bay Downs’ growth: “I think it was having the ownership that’s willing to re-invest in the facilities.”

             The ownership was also willing to create new facilities, none more vital to Tampa Bay Downs’ growth than the installation of a 7/8-mile turf course with a ¼-mile chute. “Probably the wisest investment we ever made was putting in the turf course in 1997, and it was done by in-house staff,” Berube said. “Within a year, it paid for itself.”

            That’s because turf races attracted larger fields, which quickly led to increased handle, especially through simulcasting. “It really put us on the map,” Berube said.

            So has Tampa Bay Downs’ program for three-year-olds, which continues to benefit from the absence of mile-and-a-sixteenth dirt races at that other Florida track, Gulfstream Park, because of its remodeled configuration.

            To maximize the appeal of its three-year-old races, Tampa Bay Downs increased the purse of the Sam F. Davis Stakes, a prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, from $50,000 to $150,000 in 2007. Next year, it will go for $200,000, which Berube hopes will induce the graded stakes committee to recognize the race as a Grade 3. “It should be a graded stakes,” Berube said. “It hurts us.”

            That’s because graded stakes earnings are the deciding factor in determining which horses get to start in the Kentucky Derby.

            Tampa Bay now has two graded stakes, both Grade 3: the Tampa Bay Derby and the Hillsborough, a turf stakes for older fillies and mares. The Florida Oaks was a Grade 3, but lost its graded status. “It’s a frustrating process,” Berube said.

            Regardless, the track re-packaged its two-year-old stakes races in December and three-year-old stakes leading up to the Tampa Bay Derby. “We’re trying to build a strong three-year-old program,” he said.

            Doing so entails maintaining a balance between stakes purses and overnight races. “We understand where our bread and butter is, and that’s in the overnights,” Berube said. “I think there has to be a balance, and, since I’ve been here, we’ve maintained a balance, about 85 percent to overnights and 15 percent into stakes. But you have to be able to attract top horses. And the public has responded.”

            So have horsemen, who made a record 333 claims last year during the 94-day meet. “The increase in the number of horses claimed is a positive sign in the barn area, indicating a solid horse population,” said Racing Secretary Allison De Luca, who will be starting his second year at Tampa Bay this winter when racing resumes December 8th.

            Last year, leading trainer Jamie Ness arrived at Tampa Bay with eight horses and returned to his base at Canterbury Park in Minnesota with 27.

            “I’ll tell you what, I’m a claiming trainer,” the 32-year-old native of Heron, South Dakota, said. “I pay attention to every circuit. It seemed like there are good horses to claim in Tampa. I decided to go out on a limb, pack up and try it two years ago. It worked out very well. I had a good first year. Last year, I had a great year. I claimed a lot of horses. I’ve probably claimed and lost more horses than anybody there.”

            He’s going to have to go some way to make a better claim than Lookinforthesecret. Ness, who won last year’s training title with 38 victories, claimed Lookinforthesecret for $12,500, January 5th, 2007, and won three stakes with him: the $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay last March 16th, and two others at Canterbury. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime claim,” Ness said. “I take notes on every horse. It’s been a pretty good ride with him.”

            He is understandably delighted to be part of the growth of Tampa Bay Downs, even if means more difficult competition. “It’s gotten tough,” he said. “For the facility and the weather, the track is good. The turf course is second to none, and the main track is good, too. It’s deep and sandy. It’s very good for horses.”

            It’s good for Tampa Bay Downs’ business as well. “The bettors love to bet Tampa because there are full fields,” Ness said.

            Last year’s average field size of 8.85 led to a record all-sources daily handle average of more than $4.1 million on live races. Records were also set for single-day attendance - when 11,014 showed up on Kentucky Derby Day, a number enhanced by a cooler-bag giveaway - and for all-sources single-day handle when $10.9 million was wagered on Festival Day, last March 17th. Average attendance of 3,437 was down a tick from 3,501.

            “Last year was kind of the changing of the guard with a new racing secretary, and a lot of new stables came in,” Ness said.

            They may just keep coming.

            Stakes purses for the 2007-2008 meet will be a record $2.6 million with total purses a record $16 million. On December 29th, Tampa Bay Downs will offer the Cotillion Festival Day, featuring a variety of races for two-year-olds on both grass and dirt, highlighted by the $65,000 Inaugural Stakes for colts and the $65,000 Sandpiper Stakes for fillies, both at six furlongs on the main track.

            Festival Preview Day on February 16th features the $200,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth, the $150,000 Endeavour Breeders’ Cup for older fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth on turf and the $75,000 Suncoast Stakes for three-year-old fillies at one mile on dirt.

            The $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby is the marquee attraction on Festival Day, March 15th, which also offers the $200,000 Florida Oaks for three-year-old fillies at a mile and a sixteenth on dirt, the mile-and-an-eighth $175,000 Hillsborough and the $75,000 Turf Dash at five furlongs.

            Six $85,000 stakes races for Florida-breds will be held on Florida Cup Day, April 5th.

            The attractive stakes program will allow the track continued growth. Already, more people, both horsemen and fans, are focusing on Tampa Bay Downs than ever before. Asked what he’d like people to think of when they hear the name Tampa Bay Downs, Berube said, “A great track to race on, a very forgiving surface and just a very horseman/customer friendly racetrack.”