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November 21, 2018


by Mike Henry
As many as 300 backstretch workers and horsemen are expected to share the blessings of the day with a full-course, homemade turkey dinner.

Jim Tsirigotis believes he is doing the Lord’s work by serving Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings to Tampa Bay Downs backstretch workers on Thursday.

“Most of the people are away from home, some from other countries, and we want to take good care of them here instead of making them go out to a restaurant,” said Tsirigotis, the proprietor of Papa Jim’s Kitchen on the track’s backside.


"Papa Jim" Tsirigotis practices his carving skills in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner

“I’ve already carved 15 turkeys (by mid-morning) and have three to go. We’ll also serve stuffing, mashed potatoes or yams, vegetables, a dinner roll, pumpkin pie and cinnamon cake, plus their choice of beverage,” said “Papa Jim,” who added that he and his staff are prepared to serve about 300 dinners.

Backstretch workers often are described as the unsung heroes of the racetrack. They walk horses, groom them, give them baths and perform a myriad of additional tasks too numerous to mention.

For Tsirigotis, a long-time horseman whose son, Jim Tsirigotis, Jr., is a Tampa Bay Downs trainer, giving back on the holiday is his way of showing respect for the efforts of stable employees.

“Papa Jim” trained and raced Thoroughbreds out of his Suncoast Farms training center in Brooksville, Fla., from 1989-1997.

“I don’t want people to have to go out to eat because the food is not as good as what we serve here. Our meal is all home-cooked, comfort food, and it gives everyone a chance to share the holiday with their families.

“Plus, being an ex-horseman, I like being around horse people,” said Tsirigotis, who began cooking turkeys last Thursday in preparation for the feast. “That’s how I get my pleasure.”

Papa Jim’s Kitchen will serve Thanksgiving dinner from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. All the meals, of course, are free, and Tsirigotis said he also expects a few owners and trainers to join. “It’s our seventh year, and I’m planning Chicken Cordon Bleu for Christmas, when we’ll also give toys to the children of the workers and raffle off fruit baskets to benefit St. Jude Children’s (Research) Hospital.”

Assisting Tsirigotis on Thursday will be his wife, Terry; their son, Jim, Jr.; and cooks John Rizos and Claude Freije.

In addition to preparing meals each racing day from 5 a.m. until about an hour after the last race, Papa Jim’s is open on non-racing days and employs a roving food cart during training hours. The kitchen has also opened a wi-fi café, where backstretch workers, horsemen and riders can access the Internet.

The 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Downs Thoroughbred racing season resumes Saturday with a 10-race Opening Day program.