Competition spirited despite lack of spectators, handle shows interest remains strong; eight races scheduled Friday and Saturday.
Anyone looking for signs of normality at Tampa Bay Downs today should have been within shouting distance of trainer Maria Bowersock during the third race.
“Come on, Lucky,” Bowersock implored from the Grandstand apron as her 4-year-old filly They Call Me Lucky, under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., began maneuvering her way through horse traffic at the top of the stretch.
As horse and rider continued their rally, Bowersock threw decorum out the window. “Come on Ronnie, keep her going!” she screamed. “Come on Lucky! Come on Lucky! Come on Lucky! Come on Lucky!”
Another ‘come on,’ and the Florida-bred might have gotten there. But she managed a solid second, just a length-and-a-quarter behind winner R D Have Faith, after trailing by 11 lengths in the early going of the 5 ½-furlong sprint.
“If she breaks (well), she wins,” Bowersock said, then caught herself. The runner-up finish was the first in 15 career starts for They Call Me Lucky, who also owns a single victory, and it represented the kind of effort every trainer relishes.
In today’s environment, when no one can predict what tomorrow will bring, Bowersock will take as many seconds and thirds as the racing gods provide.
Although Tampa Bay Downs is closed to spectators for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis, racing continues as the track, horsemen, jockeys and backstretch workers keep the faith that the outbreak will plateau and the number of cases will begin declining sooner rather than later.
“When” is anybody’s guess, but Bowersock is grateful for the opportunity to continue doing what she loves best.
“As horse people, to hear management say ‘We want to keep running’ is heartfelt,” Bowersock said. “They’re going to try their best to keep us running, and that’s all we can ask for.”
Bowersock was also encouraged by total wagering handle, through account wagering, of almost $200,000 on the first two races, with five horses in the first race (after two scratches) and six in the second.
“When I saw that, I thought, we’re going to be OK,” she said.
Total all-sources handle was $1,512,051.
At the same time, Tampa Bay Downs has shut down The Silks Poker Room, at least until March 30, and suspended food and beverage operations. “I feel bad for all those employees,” said Bowersock, referring to servers, card dealers, chefs, wait staff, program sellers, valet parking crew members and the other employees whose efforts in putting on the show in normal circumstances are overlooked, and integral. “They rely on their winter jobs.”
While everyone is encouraged to follow government-issued guidelines to slow the spread of the disease, virtually no one is immune from its effects. Most of leading jockey Antonio Gallardo’s family lives in Spain, where a nationwide lockdown has been imposed as authorities seek to slow the rising number of cases.
“What’s happening there now is scary,” Gallardo said. “Everybody needs to know that can happen here, too.”
Italy, Spain and France have all imposed nationwide lockdowns.
No jockey here has done their job better than Gallardo since he won the first of his four Oldsmar riding titles six years ago, and he showed how in the sixth race on the turf, piloting 3-year-old gelding Danville to a maiden-breaking, come-from behind victory for breeder-owner Robert C. Roffey, Jr., and trainer Chad Stewart.
“It’s really weird when you always have the crowd rooting for you and calling your name to look around and not see anyone here,” Gallardo said. “It’s almost like you’re not really in a race, like you’re breezing horses in the morning. But when the gate opens, you’re in a different world. It’s you and your horse and that’s it.”
Leslie Mawing, who rode the winners of the first two races, said it’s easy to forget the Hollywood sound-stage surroundings when racing without cheering fans. “When I go into the gate, it’s business. I’m focused on the race, I’m focused on the horse I’m riding and I’m focused on winning,” he said. “Of course, afterward there is nobody to fist-bump, nobody congratulating you on the walk back to the room.
“And I miss seeing the young fans out here,” Mawing said. “I have three of my own.”
Mawing said most racetrack people are thankful for the opportunity to continue to work during the crisis. “Thank God, right now we’re able to race, because as racetrackers, we are pretty much self-employed. We depend on the times that we work, from the groom to the jockey and the trainer,” Mawing said. “We’re all depending on having to race – that’s how we make our living.”
Mawing won the first race on Shiny Surprise, a 7-year-old mare owned and trained by Anthony Rini. He added the second on Highwaytwentyseven, a 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Carole Star Stables and trained by Jose H. Delgado.
Shiny Surprise’s conditioner Rini, a jockey for 22 years and a trainer since 1984, knows hardships. He suffered a broken back and a paralyzed left arm in a 1983 accident at Oaklawn Park, but jokes today that he is a better golfer with one arm than two.
He understands the racetrack’s healing powers, its Lourdesean recuperative magic where, as in the case of COVID-19, there is no difference between prince and pauper when the mask has been peeled away and you had better have faith if you plan to endure.
“Winning a race is a shot in the arm, no question about it. But this is crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Rini said. “People who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s going to be a tough hit. I don’t have anything to compare it to.
“The mentality on the racetrack is, you just keep going, no matter what. You just keep trying and eventually your number will come up,” Rini said. “I just feel like this will level off after four or six or eight weeks and most of the people who have it will probably be recovering.
“Hopefully, that’s the scenario.”
Tampa Bay Downs mourns Dwyer. The Tampa Bay Downs community is saddened by the passing of long-time simulcast director Cathy Dwyer, who died last weekend in New Port Richey after a prolonged and courageous battle with cancer. She was 65.
Dwyer, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., joined Tampa Bay Downs in 1990 in the marketing department. She was later promoted to the position of Simulcast Director, helping expand the track’s signal nationwide.
“Cathy was a key member of our team for over 22 years,” said Peter Berube, Vice President-General Manager of Tampa Bay Downs. “She was here in the beginning when few people knew about our signal, and as simulcast director, she played a major role in getting us to the status we’re at today.”
Dwyer left Tampa Bay Downs in 2013 to become Director of Operations at Premier Turf Club, an advance-deposit wagering company with headquarters in Dunedin, Fla. In addition to handling daily administrative tasks, she continued to work with her racetrack contacts throughout the country to distribute their signals.
“Cathy was an invaluable asset to our team here at BetPTC,” said General Manager Todd Bowker. “She will be dearly missed by both us and everyone she touched within the industry.”
“In addition to being a great worker and friend, she showed us what a true fighter is,” said Rich Nilsen, marketing director for BetPTC. “She leaves a legacy of faith and inspiration to everyone who loved her.”
Dwyer is survived by numerous friends and family, including her son Chris, daughter-in-law Maggie and three grandchildren.
Around the oval. Veteran jockey Marcelo Almeida, who won 1,956 races in Brazil, captured his first victory in the United States in the third race on R D Have Faith, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned and trained by Robert Drake.
Raul Mena won both halves of the late daily double. He won the seventh race on Yabba Dabba Dude, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Crowns Way Racing and Carlos Silva and trained by Silva. Mena added the eighth on High Threshold, a 3-year-old colt owned and trained by Christopher Seale.
Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with an eight-race card beginning at 12:45 p.m. Eight races have been carded for Saturday, beginning at 12:35 p.m.
Fans are encouraged to wager on the races through various account-wagering sites such as NYRA Bets, DRF Bets and TVG, and they can watch the races on the track’s website, www.tampabaydowns.com . Race replays are also available on the website.