Tampa Bay Downs backstretch workers have a place to enjoy a free Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to "Papa Jim" Tsirigotis, his kitchen crew and the racetrack.
As a Thoroughbred trainer from 1989-1997, Jim Tsirigotis gained an appreciation for the challenges faced by backstretch workers on the racetrack.
“They work their butts off,” said Tsirigotis, the proprietor of Papa Jim’s Kitchen at the south end of the barn area at Tampa Bay Downs. “A lot of them are in the barn by 4 a.m., and after they clean the stalls and groom the horses, they have to get them tacked up and ready to go to the track with the jockey or the exercise rider.
“In terms of putting on the show, they have a lot to do with getting the horses ready.”
Terry and "Papa Jim" Tsirigotis, holding turkey, are surrounded by (left to right) John Rizos, Claude Freije and Jim Tsirigotis, Jr.
On Thanksgiving, Tsirigotis – whose son, Jim, Jr., trains a string of seven horses at Tampa Bay Downs – will go the extra mile by serving turkey dinners with all the trimmings to between 200-250 backstretch employees, many of whom are away from home for the 2019-2020 meeting.
Assisting Tsirigotis will be his wife of 53 years, Terry; Jim, Jr., who will join the preparations after training hours; and cooks John Rizos and Claude Freije.
This marks the eighth consecutive Thanksgiving on which Papa Jim’s Kitchen will prepare Thanksgiving dinner for backstretch and track employees. The feast consists of 15 turkeys and side items such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, string beans, rolls, pumpkin pie and beverage.
Funding for the dinners was provided by Tampa Bay Downs.
Papa Jim’s kitchen has been serving backstretch employees every day since the barn area opened on Oct. 28, and their hours will expand Wednesday, which is Opening Day for the 2019-2020 season.
The day-to-day demands of serving the backstretch human population require Tsirigotis and his crew to start planning the Turkey Day feast well in advance. They purchased the turkeys on Nov. 19 and began cooking them last week.
“You can’t prep 15 turkeys the day before Thanksgiving,” said the 76-year-old Tsirigotis, a long-time restaurant owner and manager. “ ‘Mama’ (Terry) starts putting them in the oven about six days out, and when they cool down I de-bone them, slice up the breasts and separate the dark meat and the white meat.
“Then we put them in the cooler and cover them, and on Wednesday morning we’ll start bringing everything out. We’ll close early Thanksgiving morning to give ourselves a chance to get everything ready and set up the steam tables and put out all the good stuff, and we’ll start serving dinner about 10:30 a.m.,” Tsirigotis said.
Making sure everything is right requires Papa Jim and Terry to arrive at the kitchen about 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving. They’ll open for breakfast at 5, and there will be people at the door – which adds to the holiday cheer permeating the track environment, where all work toward a common goal of entertaining racing fans throughout the Tampa Bay area.
“The way I look at it, God put me on this earth to do good all my life,” Tsirigotis said. “I had a stroke and a heart attack two years ago and was in intensive care for 18 days, but he said ‘I’m not ready for you yet. Go back and finish the work you started.’
“We all feel we’re part of the Tampa Bay Downs family, and we love everybody here.”
When they are done serving grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, trainers, security personnel and a stray jockey or two (remember, those guys have to keep their weight down, regardless of the occasion), Tsirigotis and the Papa Jim’s family will sit down to their dinner, right in the kitchen.
“I don’t cook Thanksgiving dinner at home,” he said. “I’ll be tuckered out when we get there, and on Friday we’ll be back to normal hours, like it never happened.”
All the backstretch workers treated to a home-cooked meal on the special day, despite being far from home, know better.