A half-century before the NFL arrived in Tampa; 66 years before the birth of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise; and 72 years prior to Major League Baseball landing in St. Petersburg, Florida’s west coast became home to big-time Thoroughbred horse racing.
Kentucky Colonel Matt J. Winn, 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. Since then, 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.
Originally opened as Tampa Downs, the racetrack has amassed a long and colorful history.
In 1943 during World War II, the U.S. Army took over the track for use as a jungle-warfare training facility. It was renamed Sunshine Park in 1947 and entered the modern era with the installation of an electric starting gate, photo-finish camera and electronic tote board.
Following the war, the racetrack 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."
In 1965, the track was acquired by a group of Tampa sportsmen and renamed Florida Downs. It became Tampa Bay Downs 15 years later after another change in ownership. The current owners assumed full control before the start of the 1986-1987 season, and the facility has been in a state of constant improvement since then.
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.
In 1983 the track began running periodic Arabian horse races, adding a new dimension. The Arabian-bred program ended in 2003.
In the spring of 1997, Mrs. Stella F. Thayer, President and Treasurer of Tampa Bay Downs, announced the installation of a 7/8-mile turf course with a quarter-mile chute. Ground was broken on May 14, 1997, 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. This improvement has provided more opportunities for horsemen and patrons alike.
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, snack bar and wagering terminals, replete with numerous TV monitors to enjoy all of the action.
In 2007, arguably the most exciting stretch duel in track history culminated 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.
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.
Since opening in 2004, The Silks Poker Room @ Tampa Bay Downs has emerged as a prime destination for card-game aficionados of all experience levels and bankroll sizes to test their skills. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m.- 4 a.m., 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.
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
In 2013, for the first time, the top three finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby -- Verrazano, 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, Tampa Bay Downs staged three graded stakes on the same card for the first time on Feb. 2: 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 course.
Tampa Bay Downs signed an agreement with TVG, America's Horseracing Network, 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 feature 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 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 Fernando, Walter and Juan De La Cruz all rode winners on a single card on Feb. 21. 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.
Tampa Bay Downs has 23 stakes scheduled for the 2014-2015 meeting, including six that are graded. The Tampa Bay Derby, to be contested March 7 for a $350,000 purse, is a Grade II race for 3-year-olds. The $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes is a Grade III event on Jan. 31. The track's other Grade III races are scheduled on the turf, including the $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, which has produced two winners of the Kentucky Oaks.