Picking a top-10 of Tampa Bay Downs happenings in 2019 is easy, now you can help fill in the next 10 -- or engage in a lively debate of our choices; "Calendar Giveaway" promotion begins Thursday, Dec. 26.
Seven racing days remain before Tampa Bay Downs enters its 11th decade of operation and Thoroughbreds across the continent “celebrate” their birthdays (they are all considered a year older on Jan. 1, for record-keeping purposes).
But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to look back at some of the notable 2019 happenings that shone a spotlight on the Oldsmar oval.
Forgive us if we’ve left out your favorite, or better yet, let us know and we’ll mention it in this space between now and the end of the year. For now, though, here are the moments that still glow bright:
- Tacitus, a striking gray colt trained by Hall of Fame legend Bill Mott, sets a stakes record of 1:41.90 with Jose Ortiz in the saddle to win the 39th edition of the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. Mott goes on to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve eight weeks later – with Country House, who is elevated to first upon the disqualification of apparent winner Maximum Security. Tacitus gets moved up to third.
- Almost overlooked in the excitement surrounding the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs is the performance by jockey Pablo Morales right here in Oldsmar. Morales rides five winners from five starters on the May 4 Tampa Bay Downs card, including two stakes winners. One of those, 3-year-old Jackson, sets a track record in capturing the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Silver Charm Florida Sire Stakes.
- In horse racing, the most emotional moments often occur when you aren’t expecting them. Such was the case on March 15, when veteran jockey Jesus Castanon rode 3-year-old colt Higgins to a maiden victory, rewarding his countryman and close friend David Flores with his first victory as a trainer. Castanon, who is from Mexico City, and Flores, a retired jockey from Tijuana who rode 3,608 winners, first met in 1984 at Caliente Racetrack when Flores was an apprentice.
- Samy Camacho won his first career jockeys title, riding 123 winners to turn back the likes of Antonio Gallardo, Daniel Centeno, Morales and Castanon. Camacho, who rode three stakes winners during the meeting and had a five-victory day in January, also opened his heart to those less fortunate, donating his purse earnings from a three-victory performance to major league pitcher Carlos Carrasco’s youth foundation to aid needy children in Venezuela.
- It’s one of the most popular Tampa Bay Downs victories in recent memory: the gate-to-wire effort of 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Well Defined in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 9. Engineered by trainer Kathleen O’Connell and jockey Pablo Morales, the victory was one of those rare occasions when a “hometown” stable took down the graded stakes and the big money.
- While it actually opened in November of 2018, during last season’s Opening Day festivities, the “Tracking Our History” display inside the main Grandstand entrance was a hit throughout the meeting with long-time fans, casual visitors and first-time patrons alike. Consisting of a video retrospective and a glass-enclosed collection of memorabilia and milestones from 1926 to last season, it’s a vivid reminder of the track’s hold on area sporting fans (watch the replay of the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby with Street Sense and Any Given Saturday and get goose bumps all over again).
- Gerald Bennett continued to defy Father Time by earning his fourth consecutive Tampa Bay Downs training title (and fifth overall). Bennett sent out 69 winners, the most in a single season since the track-record 79 by Jamie Ness in 2012. Included was Bennett’s four-victory performance on Feb. 17, the third time the (now)-75-year-old conditioner has won that many here on a single card.
- Chalk it up as merely an oddity if you must, but there was something special about watching trainers Tyler Rotstein and Lee Cameron score back-to-back victories on April 6. Thing is, it was the first career training victory for both men. Rotstein is currently a law student whose career is on hold with a 1-for-5 mark; Cameron got his second career victory here on Dec. 11 with 25-1 shot Victim. Tough game that keeps you coming back.
- Knock on wood, it doesn’t happen again this season: Parts of three racing cards were cancelled by heavy rain and lightning, including eight races on May 5, Fan Appreciation Day. Horse racing fans like to believe the breaks even out over the long haul, so perhaps those nasty afternoons made up for the great weather the area enjoys most of the year.
- The only way horse racing will continue to thrive in the 21st century is by introducing new fans to the sport, and Tampa Bay Downs has embraced that challenge. In addition to its “College Days” essay contest promotion, which awarded five $2,000 scholarships, Tampa Bay Downs invited “Generation Z” fans (generally, those born between 1996-2010) to share the thrills by inviting them to join the winner’s-circle ceremony during designated races.
- Around the oval. Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:45 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs will conduct its only Thursday card of the meeting on Dec. 26, which coincides with the start of the track’s “Calendar Giveaway” promotion. The 2020 edition of the calendar will be distributed throughout the weekend to the first 10,000 patrons, with paid admission. It includes photographs by some of the area’s top equine photojournalists, as well as key racing dates throughout the season.
Beginning this week, Tampa Bay Downs will race on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule throughout the meeting with the exception of Christmas, Dec. 25, and Easter, April 12, when the track is closed, and the Dec. 26 racing card.
Otherwise, the track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.