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Published Oct 6, 2023
by Mike Henry
Veteran official worked in Oldsmar as Racing Secretary in 2005-2006 and as Association Steward from 2008-2016.

For longtime racing official John Morrissey, four years on the sidelines is long enough.

Thrust into retirement when Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts ended Thoroughbred racing in 2019, Morrissey has agreed to return to Tampa Bay Downs as an Association Steward, a position he held from 2008-2016.

Morrissey, 75, will join Edward Cantlon, Jr. – with whom he worked in the stewards’ booth at Suffolk – as Association Stewards at the Oldsmar oval. Morrissey replaces Dennis Lima, who died in May after a brief illness.

The Tampa Bay Downs season begins Nov. 22. A state steward will be named soon to replace Charlie Miranda, who resigned after the 2022-2023 meet.

Joelyn Rigione, an Association Official at Tampa Bay Downs, has been named Alternate Steward.

A resident of Salem, Mass., Morrissey is eager to return to action. “I’ve spent most of my career as a racing secretary, an assistant racing secretary and a steward,” said Morrissey, who entered the sport in 1971 at Thistledown in Ohio as a stable superintendent. “I always liked working with the people at Tampa, and when I talked to friends and family members, they thought I should get back in it. So, here I come.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns, but I’ve worked in racing most of my life. I think it’s probably like riding a bike, and I’m ready to get back on,” he said.

His overriding philosophy on the job remains the same. “As a racing steward, you try to be as fair about your decisions as you can while knowing you never make everybody happy.”

Morrissey, who first worked at Tampa Bay Downs as its Racing Secretary during the 2005-2006 season, said his decision to return to work feels right after the passing in August of his wife of 19 years, Jean Woods, from pancreatic cancer. The couple traveled extensively after Morrissey’s retirement in 2019 until she became sick early in 2022.

“We’re extremely pleased John has agreed to come back to his former stomping grounds,” said Margo Flynn, the track’s Vice President of Marketing & Publicity. “His vast experience will be a huge asset, and his ability to administer the rules correctly and render decisions in a fair, straightforward manner will be a major plus. We look forward to welcoming him home.”

Home, for Morrissey, has entailed almost too many racetracks to count since he worked two years on Thistledown’s backside (just before a 3-year-old named Secretariat changed the face of racing in 1973).

From the Cleveland-area track, Morrissey went to Finger Lakes – a short drive from his hometown of Livonia, N.Y. – where he worked as a patrol judge before being named Assistant Racing Secretary. He next served as Assistant Racing Secretary at Penn National for four years after that oval opened in 1972.

Morrissey got his first Racing Secretary’s job in 1976 at Pocono Downs, a position he also filled at Commodore Downs in Pennsylvania. He was an assistant racing secretary at Washington Park in the Chicago area before the track’s grandstand burned in 1977, ending racing there.

Subsequent stops included Timonium, Laurel, Turf Paradise, Delaware Park, Sportsman’s Park, Hawthorne, Balmoral, Keystone (now Parx Racing), Northampton Fair and Hialeah, which had its meet curtailed in 1989 after running head-to-head against Calder. “We had enough horses, but we didn’t have enough customers,” Morrissey recalls.

Morrissey was Director of Racing and General Manager at Dueling Grounds (now Kentucky Downs) from 1990-91 before joining Suffolk, where he was Racing Secretary from 1991-2004 and a steward from 2008-2019.

And, oh yeah. … “I almost forgot, I worked at Agua Caliente in Tijuana (Mexico) as Racing Secretary in 1983 when I lived in San Diego and just drove across the border every day,” he said. “It was unique in that they ran horses and dogs, and they had a moveable piece they laid across the main track to switch to greyhound racing.”

Morrissey is psyched to rejoin a track where Thoroughbreds still are the primary focus of attention. “It’s one of the few tracks that still ‘make it’ on racing,” he noted. “Tampa has a card room, but they don’t see the same money from it as some of the tracks with casinos. Horses are what Tampa Bay Downs is about, and their racing surface is probably one of the best around. It’s consistent and fair and the horses travel well over it, and of course, the turf course is exceptional.”

Preparations are ongoing for the 2023-2024 meet, with the first condition book (for Nov. 22-Dec. 23, inclusive) on the track website, www.tampabaydowns.com

Management reminds all horsemen that stall applications are due Friday. Overnight purses are expected to be more than $200,000 a performance.

Veteran official worked in Oldsmar as Racing Secretary in 2005-2006 and as Association Steward from 2008-2016.

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