Dennis Lima wore a variety of hats during his 30 years as an Association Steward at Tampa Bay Downs – mentor, friend and confidant foremost among them.
“He was somebody you could always talk to, and you could trust him to give you good advice,” said Tampa Bay Downs racing official Jenn Moore. “And he treated everybody equally. He was so down to earth and never got riled up.
“It (his passing) is just a huge loss for everybody.”
Lima, who dies Wednesday at 77 after a brief illness, judged the races from the stewards’ office atop the Oldsmar grandstand next to the announcer’s booth. He and former Tampa Bay Downs announcer Richard Grunder formed a lasting friendship based on numerous shared interests and a deep respect for each other’s knowledge and professionalism.
“He was a very even-tempered guy who handled himself the same with all types of people, from grooms to Hall of Fame trainers,” Grunder said. “He had the perfect personality to be a steward. He read the films really good, knew the job inside-out and any tough situations that came up, he would take the reins and make the call. I’ve been in press boxes from the Pacific Northwest to Florida, and he was one of the best I’ve ever worked with.
“Plus, he was just a fun guy to be around. He was a witty, old New England son of a gun.”
Lima gained respect from horsemen, jockeys, other track officials and even fans for his thorough knowledge of the sport’s rules and regulations and his ability to apply them without bias. “You could ask him a rules question and he would rattle the answer off the top of his head,” Moore said.
As much as Moore, Grunder and so many others at Tampa Bay Downs came to feel like family around Lima, their knowledge of his background in racing was primarily limited to working with him here on a daily basis. About a lifetime ago – actually, closer to 60 years – Lima rode a train from Rhode Island to Florida with a shipment of horses bound for the Tampa Bay Downs (then Sunshine Park) barn of trainer Doc Canzano.
Lima took off soon after graduating from Pawtucket West High School in Rhode Island, not far from Narragansett Park, where his older brother Eddie had turned him on to racing a few years earlier and helped him get work as a groom and hotwalker.
After returning north in 1964, Lima trained his own horses in New England, was an assistant trainer to Ned Allard and worked as a jockey’s agent.
Believing his future to be in the racing office, Lima served with the Massachusetts fair-racing circuit and at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire as a placing judge, paddock judge and entry clerk. He was named an alternate steward at those tracks in 1987, becoming a full-time steward three years later. He worked in that role at Rockingham from 1990 until the track closed in 2002.
By then, he was well-established at Tampa Bay Downs, having been hired in 1993 as an Association Steward by then-General Manager John Grady. Lima also worked from 2003-2021 as a State Steward at Delaware Park.
Lima’s credo as a steward was straightforward, as he outlined 10 years ago to a reporter. “The most important thing is to be as fair and consistent as possible with our rulings and our judgment calls during the races. For me, the most rewarding aspect of this job is when you finish a meet knowing you have done your part to keep it as safe as you can for the horses and the jockeys.”
He was also attuned to the importance of maintaining the public trust, saying during that same interview the one major change he would make to racing would be to “Establish more uniformity in medication rules and penalties, especially with so many trainers shipping horses from state to state.”
Lima is survived by his wife, Celeste; their children, Monique and Shaun; several grandchildren; and a son, Dennis E. Lima. He was predeceased by a daughter, Melissa. Per his wishes, no service will be held. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Suncoast Hospice Foundation, 5771 Roosevelt Blvd., Clearwater, FL 33760.