Rebecca Zielinski and Heidi Larson basked in the sunshine outside the Tampa Bay Downs paddock after today’s sixth race, grateful for the return of Thoroughbred competition to the Oldsmar oval after a hiatus of almost five months.
Like most in the Opening Day crowd of 2,865, the women are fans not only of the sport, but of the magnificent animals that bring so much pleasure.
“I just like to stand here on a nice day and watch them,” said Larson, a Palm Harbor resident. “I didn’t grow up with horses, but they amaze me – to be able to get this close to an award-winning horse is so exciting.”
Tampa resident Zielinski, herself a horse owner, finds time to enjoy the other trappings of a day at the races, as well. “I like to people-watch,” she said. “And things seem to be going really well. The staff is friendly, the restrooms are clean and the (revamped) paddock looks great.”
The anticipation of fans to return for the track’s 96th anniversary season was palpable, with track Vice President & General Manager Peter Berube crediting “pent-up demand” after last season’s COVID issues for bringing back regulars such as Zielinski and Larson and others who were making their first visit.
The return of racing couldn’t have come at a better time for jockey Jose Ferrer, who rode three winners. The Tampa resident won three of the first four races, including a sweep of the early daily double.
“This is my home, and it feels really special to be here and to be able to compete with all these young kids and do what I love,” said Ferrer, who has more than 4,600 career victories. “Riding horses for my family (wife Steffi and sons Derek and Joseph) and for the man upstairs who keeps me safe, that’s what keeps you going out there.”
Ferrer scored in the first race on 3-year-old filly She Dazzle, staving off a determined rally by long shot Working Overtime. Robert O’Connor, II owns and trains She Dazzle. The 57-year-old Ferrer (that’s 13 years older than Tom Brady, Buccaneers fans) returned to the winner’s circle after the second race with All Fools Day after the 3-year-old Florida-bred colt’s first victory in eight career starts. Dennis Ward trained All Fools Day for his own Ridenjac Racing outfit.
The victory was bittersweet for Ward, as trainer Aldana Gonzalez claimed All Fools Day for $10,000 for new owner Orlando Alvarado.
Ferrer, who won this year’s Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on Helium in March, made it 3-for-4 in the fourth race, urging Blakenstein to a hard-earned neck triumph from onrushing Pharaoh Fancy Pant. Blakenstein, a 7-1 shot, is owned by Heehaw Racing and trained by Kathleen Guciardo.
Ferrer credits the trainers who give him the opportunity to ride and the fans who salute his effort, win or lose, along the rail after a race for inspiring him.
“It’s hard to get back to the (jockeys’) room sometimes,” he said, laughing. “Those guys yelling at me and wanting to hug you and give you a high-five, it’s overwhelming. I’m super grateful to have the opportunity to do it.”
Pablo Morales, fresh from capturing his seventh riding title at Presque Isle Downs this season, rode two winners. He won the sixth race on Hitech Is Back, a 3-year-old filly bred and owned by Sabana Farm and trained by Victor Carrasco, Jr. Morales added the eighth race with Loud N Proud, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Clay Stables and trained by Jon Arnett.
Loud N Proud was claimed from the race for $6,250 by trainer Douglas Nunn for new owner Winner Circle Racing.
Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:35 p.m. The track currently races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule, with a special Thursday, Dec. 23 card and Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 26.
Tampa Bay Downs is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday, April 17. Otherwise, the track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.