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July 02, 2020

A NEW BEGINNING: 2020-2021 MEETING KICKS OFF, HORSEMEN HEAD OUT

by Mike Henry
Track officials, horsemen, jockeys and backstretch workers pass 49-day challenge with flying colors, establishing a foundation of hope for November return.

Since its inception in 2013, the two-day Summer Festival of Racing has dangled the promise of a triumphant autumn return of Thoroughbreds, their connections and the numerous other folks who make the Tampa Bay Downs show a “happening.”

Things felt different this time, as Wednesday’s 10-race card – marking the official start of the 2020-2021 meeting – was the 49th without spectators since the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shut down racing at most tracks.

Yet the “new” season felt familiar in some ways. Brothers Ronnie Allen, Jr., and Mike Allen each rode three winners to share first place in the standings until the 2020-2021 “Opening Day” card on Nov. 25. The Allens have a combined 5,878 career victories, and Ronnie is a four-time Tampa Bay Downs track champion.

Countless questions remain as horsemen head north, while track officials catch their collective breath before formulating plans for the track’s 95th anniversary season, which they hope will accommodate a diverse group of racing fans respectful of the wisdom of wearing masks and practicing social distancing, if circumstances mandate.

“The new normal,” already a cliché, takes another step today as Tampa Bay Downs reopens for simulcast wagering seven days a week on the first floor of the Grandstand and in Silks Bar & Grille.

The Riders Up! bar will be open daily from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., while Legends Bar on the second floor of the Grandstand will be open from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday through Sunday.

The decision to continue racing without fans, while instituting strict guidelines for trainers, jockeys, backstretch workers and track employees, was subject to widespread debate. But as one of a handful of tracks that stayed in operation throughout March and April, Tampa Bay Downs was able to provide an outlet for owners facing limited options.

Meanwhile, fan support – as indicated by wagering handles far in excess of normal post-Tampa Bay Derby figures – spoke to a hunger for action among sports lovers far and wide. A pair of state-approved dates extensions enabled Tampa Bay Downs to offer 111 days during the 2019-2020 meeting, making it the longest in history.

When it was over, everyone involved took time to marvel at the devotion and resilience that make the Thoroughbred world inspiring and worthy of acclaim.