Known for high-caliber Thoroughbred horse racing, exciting no-limits tournament action in The Silks Poker Room and quality instruction and amenities at The Downs Golf Practice Facility, Tampa Bay Downs has emerged as the premier multi-entertainment destination on Florida's west coast. As the track celebrates its 90th anniversary season, its remarkable history is worth another look.
Kentucky Colonel Matt J. Winn (right), the legendary promoter of the Kentucky Derby, teamed with Ohio investor Harvey Mayers to bring the sport to the “Top of the Bay” in 1926. Opening under the name Tampa Downs on Feb. 18, the inaugural card featured appearances by Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Sarazen and John Ringling.
Since that first season, Tampa Bay Downs has provided area fans and visitors with racing action from late autumn through the first weekend in May, while in 2013 adding an annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing, held each June 30 and July 1.
Tampa Bay Downs was not immune from the effects of world events such as the Great Depression and World War II, and after several years of inactivity, the U.S. Army took over the track for use as a jungle-warfare training facility in 1943.
The end of the war signaled a renewed interest in Thoroughbred racing throughout the country, and the west coast of Florida was no exception. Sunshine Park Racing Association was formed and 650 stalls provided, and the 1947 season was approved by referendum. The modern era began in 1947 under the ownership of Tampa attorney Frank Hobbs. Innovations included a tote board, electric starting gate and photo finish camera.
Sunshine Park gained popularity with sportswriters who came to the area to cover baseball spring training. Legendary journalists such as Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Fred Russell and Arthur Daley were devoted regulars, with Rice describing the racetrack as the “Santa Anita of the South." Smith was almost as effusive (though decidedly tongue-in-cheek), writing "America's newest palace of pleasure and temple of chance is a rude clearing in the palmetto thickets that is aptly called Sunshine Park because the sun has steadfastly refused to shine upon it and the nearest park of consequence is Yellowstone."
The opening of a new clubhouse in 1954 marked another milestone. The following year, control of the track passed to a syndicate that included Hobbs, who created the Florida Breeders' Futurity and in 1957 was voted Florida's Man of the Year.
Top owners Fred Hooper, Sanford Stud, Llangolen Farm and Gene Mori sent strings to race here in 1959, and the track became recognized outside the confines of the area. In 1965 the track was acquired by a group of Tampa sportsmen headed by Chester Ferguson, and it was renamed Florida Downs and Turf Club a year later.
The "Oldsmar oval" has remained in the Ferguson family since, through the current ownership of President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer and her brother, Vice President-Secretary Howell Ferguson.
Tampa Bay Downs President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer, shown with husband Bronson Thayer, is a member of The Jockey Club's Board of Stewards, a past President of both the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and a breeder and owner.
In September of 1968, a fire destroyed the Grandstand, sparing only the Clubhouse. But management's commitment to the sport was made evident by the construction of an $800,000 edifice with the capacity for 6,000 people. The new building debuted with the season opener on Jan. 17, and the track has been in a constant state of improvement since.
Tampa industrialist Sam F. Davis -- who gained renown as the quarterback and captain of the 1933 University of Florida football team -- was named track President in 1972, and in his first year at the helm, Florida Downs amassed a record wagering handle. The track's second-most lucrative race, the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds, is named in his honor. His wife Helen (center) is shown visiting the Skye Terrace Dining Room with singer Rosemary Clooney, left, and an unidentified friend.
Davis retired in 1980, the same year New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner became an ownership partner. His contributions in elevating the track's profile were numerous, and he became a highly visible spokesman for the track and the sport until his 1986 divestment and beyond. The track was renamed Tampa Bay Downs to reflect the region's solidarity, and a new era ensued.
On Feb. 12, 1981, Julie Krone, then an apprentice jockey and now a U.S. Racing Hall of Fame member, won her first career race aboard Lord Farkle (winner's-circle photo, left).
While the hard-knocking Florida-bred Lord Farkle won six races that year, Krone -- a Benton Harbor, Mich., resident who was 17 -- would enjoy one of the most storied careers in the history of the turf. Her career total of 3,704 victories, the most by any woman jockey, includes the 1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair and the 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies aboard Halfbridled.
Krone, who won meeting titles at Belmont Park, Monmouth and Gulfstream in her career, was the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, in 2000. She is also in the National Women's Hall of Fame beside such iconic individuals as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Jean King.
Another highlight of the 1981 season was the inaugural running of the (then)-$50,000-added Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, won by Paristo, who went on to finish third in the Preakness. In the ensuing years, the Tampa Bay Derby has grown to a Grade II, $350,000 event, producing a pair of Kentucky Derby winners: winner Street Sense in 2007 and third-place finisher Super Saver in 2010.
In 1983, Tampa Bay Downs began running periodic Arabian horse races, adding a new dimension. The Arabian-bred program ended in 2003.
The track added a seven-furlong chute in 1984, and a new dirt track was constructed prior to the 1985-1986 meeting with banking sufficient to provide better drainage and a safer racing surface. Legendary Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack (right), a five-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey who rode here as an apprentice in the Sunshine Park era, was named as a steward.
Stella F. Thayer and her brother Howell Ferguson took full control of Tampa Bay Downs with a $16.2-million bid at auction a month before the start of the 1986-1987 meeting. When Thayer named controller Lorraine M. King as General Manager, it marked the first time in turf history a Thoroughbred track had separate female ownership and management. The first Sunday card in track history was conducted on Dec. 7, 1986, drawing a crowd of 5,893 and paving the way for ongoing success with Kids and Family Days and Family Fiesta Days.
Mike Manganello, a six-time Oldsmar riding champion who won the 1970 Kentucky Derby aboard Dust Commander, recorded career victory No. 2,500 here aboard Siberian Gold. During the 1987-1988 meeting, Ronnie Allen, Jr. (left), won his third track title in four seasons, becoming the first Tampa Bay Downs jockey to surpass 100 victories.
Inter-track wagering made its debut in Florida in 1989, enabling Tampa Bay Downs to remain open as a year-round simulcast facility. Also that season, the Sports Gallery opened and the Clubhouse Turn Restaurant was enlarged and renovated. Minors were permitted in all areas except the Sports Gallery and wagering lines.
A new inner rail was installed prior to the 1990-1991 meeting. The following season, the track's popular Backyard Picnic Area opened, giving families and newcomers a chance to enjoy a day at the races. Tampa Bay Downs also added a Z-Alpha display board in the infield to enhance the experience of fans and bettors.
The Tampa Bay Downs winter simulcast signal has proven to be one of the most popular in North America, and by the 1994-1995 meeting, more than 350 outlets were accepting the Oldsmar races, with 540 taking the Tampa Bay Derby card. At the start of the 1996-1997 meeting, it was announced Tampa Bay Downs would remain open seven days a week to host simulcast signals. Attendance increased 4.3 percent, while on-track handle shot up almost 16 percent.
In the spring of 1997, Stella F. Thayer announced the installation of a 7/8-mile turf course with a quarter-mile chute. Ground was broken on May 14, 1997, the grass was planted Sept. 9 and the course was completed the following spring. The first turf race in Tampa Bay Downs annals was contested on Kentucky Derby Day, May 2, 1998, with excited fans watching the action from the infield. The total crowd was 8,669, the second largest in track history at the time.
This improvement has provided more opportunities for horsemen and patrons alike. Top trainers such as Christophe Clement, William Mott, H. Graham Motion and Chad Brown have been among the biggest supporters of the turf course.
In the summer of 1999, the Clubhouse was totally remodeled, with fan comfort the No. 1 priority. Renovations included central air conditioning, a refurbished elevator, plush carpeting, luxury seating and countless buckets of fresh paint. The lower floor of the Clubhouse was redesigned as a "Sports Book" atmosphere, and a state-of-the-art sound system was installed throughout the Clubhouse and Grandstand. During the 1999-2000 meeting, Secret Status -- a 3-year-old filly owned by William S. Farish and partners -- won the Florida Oaks and went on to capture the Kentucky Oaks.
In March of 2003 Tampa Bay Downs launched The Downs Golf Practice Facility, a state-of-the-art, first-of-its-kind golf practice and wagering facility. The 22 acres of lighted golf property include 270 yards of open range for full-swing shots, plus putting and short-game areas. The Downs Golf Clubhouse features a fully stocked pro shop (right), snack bar and wagering terminals, replete with numerous TV monitors to enjoy all of the action.
The opening of the 2003-2004 season saw the debut of The Silks Poker Room. Now located in opulent splendor on the third floor of the Grandstand, the room is air conditioned and includes 30 poker tables, with plenty of television monitors, roaming mutuel tellers, tableside beverage service and in-house massages. Offering a variety of games, high stakes and no-limit poker, the room is open every day -- except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday -- from 10 a.m.-4 a.m.
Since opening in 2004, The Silks Poker Room has emerged as a prime destination for card-game aficionados of all experience levels and bankroll sizes to test their skills. The Silks Poker Room features every variation of Texas Hold’em, No-Limit Hold’em, Omaha and Stud Games, as well as thrilling multi-table tournaments.
Daily promotions are a staple inside The Silks Poker Room, which boasts numerous amenities sure to soothe. Enjoy complimentary soft drinks, dining and cocktail service, tableside massages and plasma TV screens airing live sporting events and simulcast racing from across the country. With cash games and a view of the racetrack finish line from almost every table, The Silks Poker Room offers the best in live entertainment on the west coast of Florida.
Before the start of the 2006-2007 meeting, a Daktronics 16:9 ratio jumbo video board was installed in the infield (left, during construction), giving patrons an unparalleled view of the action. They were richly rewarded in March that season when a crowd of 10,593 viewed arguably the most exciting stretch duel in track history, culminating with a nose victory by Street Sense from Any Given Saturday in the then-Grade III Tampa Bay Derby. The Carl Nafzger-trained Street Sense used his Oldsmar success under jockey Calvin Borel as a springboard to victories in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Three years later, the third-place finisher in the Tampa Bay Derby, Super Saver, triumphed in the Run for the Roses. The Tampa Bay Derby was awarded Grade II status the following spring. It is one of six graded stakes races conducted annually at Tampa Bay Downs.
The 2011-12 season was highlighted by eight track records and a 3-percent increase in on-track handle to more than $40-million. Bettors heralded the introduction of Trakus, an electronic system which displays the position and location of each horse during a race.
Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, the grandstand was remodeled to include a pub-style gathering place, christened Riders Up! The friendly refreshment center features marble countertops, a candy-apple redwood finish and a variety of craft beers. Also new on the downstairs level of the grandstand is the Metro Deli, designed to resemble an old-time, big-city eatery.
The improvements continued before the 2014-2015 meeting with the unveiling of a bright, redesigned circular driveway entrance. Featuring tree-lined pathways, garden landscaping, enhanced lighting, benches and automatic sliding doors, it signaled a friendly "welcome back" to all when the 89th anniversary meeting resumed.
Contemporary racing fans and journalists embrace the Downs for its distinctive, country fair-style charm, and it is regarded far and wide as one of America's most pleasant and well-maintained racetracks. The list of sports and entertainment celebrities who have visited Tampa Bay Downs is lengthy, spiking during the six-year tenure of Steinbrenner (right, with opera singer Robert Merrill), who himself drew a crowd every time he came down to the paddock.
On Festival Day, March 15, 2008, a record 12,746 fans arrived at the Oldsmar oval to witness Big Truck capture the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby. Tampa Bay Downs had three Eclipse Award winners compete during the 2007-2008 meeting. Rosemary Homeister, Jr., who won the Outstanding Apprentice award in 1992, was a regular fixture in the Jockeys’ Room at the Oldsmar oval, finishing the season as the second-leading rider overall. Dreaming of Anna, who was the Champion Juvenile Filly of 2006, won the Grade III Endeavour Breeders’ Cup and the Grade III Hillsborough Stakes. War Pass, who was the 2007 Two-Year-Old Champion, competed in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby.
Before the 2007-2008 race meet began, Tampa Bay Downs underwent several renovations, including the installation of the Grandstand elevator; the all-new Silks Poker Room, located on the third floor of the Grandstand; and the Party Suite, adjacent to the Silks Poker Room, where new flat-screen TVs were installed.
The Legends Bar, which includes a museum-quality exhibition of famed Thoroughbred Seabiscuit, became the newest feature on the second floor of the Grandstand. Horsemen enjoyed improvements to the Paddock area, with all-new stalls in the saddling barn ensuring the safety and comfort of horses and their connections. Other facility upgrades at the Oldsmar oval included a refurbished Racing Office on the backstretch, as well as a renovated track kitchen.
In 2010, reigning multiple-Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti made his 5-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Stakes, losing by a nose to Karelian and Rosemary Homeister, Jr. Following that heart-pounding renewal, the turf event for older horses was elevated to Grade III status the following year.
Hall of Fame trainer William Mott selected Tampa Bay Downs for the first 2011 starts for his 3-year-old filly Royal Delta and 4-year-old colt Drosselmeyer, who had won the 2010 Belmont Stakes and became the first winner of a Triple Crown to subsequently compete in Oldsmar.
Although both fell short locally, Royal Delta went on to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic in 2011 and 2012 and Drosselmeyer won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic to go with his Belmont triumph.
In 2013, for the first time, the top three finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby -- Verrazano (left), Java's War and Falling Sky -- competed in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Verrazano also won the Grade I Wood Memorial and Grade I Haskell Invitational and Java's War won the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. That same season, on Feb. 2, Tampa Bay Downs staged three graded stakes on the same card for the first time: the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes; the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks; and the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes, the latter two on the turf.
Tampa Bay Downs signed an agreement with TVG/HRTV to broadcast the meeting, sending the signal to countless new fans.
Meanwhile, Phase Two of the track's ongoing, environmentally conscious green initiative continued to gain momentum with the introduction of a state-of-the-art geothermal HVAC system designed to save energy and costs while requiring almost no maintenance.
On June 30 and July 1 of 2013, Tampa Bay Downs started the Summer Festival of Racing, which enabled the track to control its simulcast income by being classified as a year-round live-racing facility. The Summer Festival features a $5,000 Jockeys' Challenge and led to a 15-percent increase in purses, including an all-time high benchmark of $24,000 for maiden special weight races for the 2013-2014 season.
During the 2013-2014 meeting, Jamie Ness (right) won his record eighth consecutive training title by sending out 53 winners, while Antonio Gallardo, a native of Spain, won his first jockeys title by riding 124 winners and surviving a ding-dong battle with four-time leading jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., the ownership group of Rich and Karen Papiese, captured its fifth consecutive owners title with 45 victories.
Track officials established the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus, with $1-million to be awarded to the owners of any horse winning the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Vinceremos -- owned by WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables -- won the Davis and finished second to Ring Weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby before finishing off the board in the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, a fan who picked Vinceremos to win the Davis was given an opportunity to win a $100,000 bonus.
In tandem with Equus Technology Group, Tampa Bay Downs instituted the Live It Up Challenge handicapping contest, won by Glenn Wilson of nearby Westchase. Wilson was the only player to stay alive through the duration of the event; he won $1,500 and a seat at the 2015 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in January in Las Vegas.
On March 29, Tampa Bay Downs played host to the first Jockeys and Jeans barbecue luncheon to benefit the Permanently Disabled Riders Fund. Among those in attendance were seven-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Mike Manganello; Hall of Famers Pat Day, Walter Blum, Jacinto Vasquez and Bill Boland; Ramon Dominguez; and early female pioneers Barbara Jo Rubin, Diane Crump and Mary Russ, as well as several disabled former riders.
In what is believed to be a first in the sport, brothers (left to right) Juan, Fernando and Walter De La Cruz of Huancavelica, Peru, all rode winners on a single card on Feb. 21, 2014 at Tampa Bay Downs.
L.J. McKanas, a trainer competing at Tampa Bay Downs for the first time, delighted racegoers by appearing as a contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor.
Track announcer Richard Grunder marked his 30th season at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2013-2014 meeting.
The racing action was fast and furious from the outset during the 2014-2015 meeting, as jockey Antonio Gallardo rode five winners on the first stakes Saturday of the season and 2-year-old Catalina Red set a stakes record of 1:09.32 in the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes.
Gallardo's success would be a recurrent theme. The native of Cadiz, Spain rode five winners again on Dec. 31 and finished the meeting with 147 winners to set a new track record and capture his second consecutive riding title. Gallardo was joined at the top by trainer Jamie Ness, who took home an unprecedented ninth consecutive Oldsmar crown with 45 victories.
The Ness-trained 6-year-old gelding Brother Pat became the first horse to sweep all four legs of the Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series, never trailing at a single point of call in any of his victories.
Trainer Todd Pletcher won the Tampa Bay Derby for the third time, capturing the Grade II, $350,000 showcase with Carpe Diem. The colt is owned in partnership by Stonestreet Stables, which also owns Ocean Knight, winner of the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes. The 35th renewal of the Tampa Bay Derby headlined a March 7 Festival Day program that included the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes; and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes, making it the richest day in track history.
A crowd of 10,379 watched Carpe Diem and fellow Tampa Bay Derby participant Danzig Moon compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands via simulcast on May 2. That race was won, of course, by eventual Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
Professional wrestler Dusty "The American Dream" Rhodes had his hands full with jockey Jerry Harrison during this mid-1970s visit to the track.
An outstanding stakes program at Tampa Bay Downs produced several record-breaking performances. In addition to his Inaugural victory, trainer Chad Stewart's Catalina Red set a stakes and track record in winning the Dec. 27 Pasco Stakes for 2-year-olds, speeding home seven furlongs in 1:21.40 under jockey Daniel Centeno. That same day, 2-year-old filly Irish Jasper set a stakes mark of 1:22.41 in the Gasparilla for trainer Derek Ryan.
Bold Thunder established a course and stakes record of 54.63 in the five-furlong Turf Dash, the fifth victory in the race for Centeno. A 4-year-old filly trained by Roy Lerman, Evidently, set a stakes mark in the Florida Cup Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf of 1:40.93 at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth. The 4-year-old gelding Special Envoy set a mile-and-an-eighth turf course record of 1:46.55 on March 18.
On March 28, trainer Gerald Bennett saddled career winner No. 3,500, the 3-year-old filly Once More for Love. New York native Andrew Demsky was named host for the track's "Paddock Preview" show, taking over from Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn, who continued in her executive role while shifting her focus to other responsibilities.
Tampa Bay Downs purchased the Tampa Greyhound Track in January of 2015.
On Dec. 15, 2014, seven members of the Tampa Bay Downs jockey colony traveled to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg to visit youngsters with potentially life-limiting diseases. The group included (left to right): Pablo Morales; Ronnie Allen, Jr.; Janelle Campbell; Antonio Gallardo; Keiber Coa, foreground; Dean Butler; and Daniel Centeno.