The dark bay filly with the white blaze paused at the top of the ramp, inhaling the scents of her surroundings before stepping outside the trailer onto the grassy backside of her new home at Tampa Bay Downs.
Carolina Dreams, an attractive 2-year-old homebred from the Steinbrenner family’s Kinsman Farm, finished out of the money in three starts in south Florida for owner J. H. S. Stable. But she won the unofficial competition to be the first horse on the grounds for the Oldsmar oval’s 88th season of Thoroughbred racing, which resumes Dec. 4.
Carolina Dreams was part of a 21-horse entourage sent north from Gulfstream Park in three Lorraine Horse Transport tractor-trailer vans by trainer Greg Griffith, a fixture at Tampa Bay Downs since the early 1980s. Griffith, the Vice President of the Tampa Bay Downs Chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said arriving a month early will work to his horses’ advantage.
“I get to give them a little break from training, turn them out in the round pens for a week and get them ready for Opening Day” (actually Day 2 of the 2013-14 meeting, which began July 1), Griffith said by telephone, en route to join his crew later Monday. “It’s best to get there fresh, get them settled and get ready to start training them.”
Jimmy Indurre, a long-time exercise rider, drove the first van of 10 Griffith-trained horses, accompanied by Griffith’s foreman George Beaulieu and a couple of grooms. They began loading equipment and horses in the Gulfstream stable area at 3:30 a.m., left soon after 5 and arrived at the Tampa Bay Downs barn area at 10:12.
“You always have to worry when you ship horses,” Beaulieu said outside Griffith’s barn. “Some of them get claustrophobic or they get a little sick, and we’ll check their temperatures after we unload them to make sure they’re all right.
“But this is really cool weather compared to what they are coming from, and they seem to enjoy it more and thrive in it. Greg likes to let them unwind, and they absolutely love it when we turn them out in the paddocks and they get to roll and play.”
After finishing in the top 10 of the trainer standings at Tampa Bay Downs last season with 16 victories, Griffith sent out since-retired Sweet Little Lion to win the $100,000 Hollywood Wildcat Stakes at Calder in Miami in July. A Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month selection last season, the Ocala resident is always excited to return to Oldsmar.
“I can’t wait. Tampa Bay Downs has been our home track forever, and I love the track, the people and the whole organization,” Griffith said.
“Tampa Bay Downs is just a wholesome atmosphere, like a fair atmosphere,” added Beaulieu. “The backside is like an extended family, and people come here from all over the country to race and watch the horses.”
Tampa Bay Downs will open for training Thursday. The highlight of the meeting is the track’s 34th annual Festival Day, to be held March 8. That day’s card includes the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds; the Grade II, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf; and the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf.
Additionally, the “Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus” awards $1-million to any horse sweeping the track’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 1, the Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Following the Sam F. Davis, the winning jockey will draw the name of a fan who will be eligible to win $100,000 if a horse wins all three races.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.