by Mike Henry

Growing up, and as a younger man, Keith Nations fell in love with Thoroughbred racing on his many trips to Longacres Racetrack outside Seattle.

Longacres was closed after being sold to the Boeing Company in 1992, and it would be almost four years before Emerald Downs opened in nearby Auburn, Wash. But Nations – by then, recently married and driving a truck for FedEx Corporation – couldn’t shake the desire to become part of a world he admired from a distance.

“I’ve always loved the game, and I always thought I’d love to be a trainer someday,” the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month recalled Thursday morning while watching a couple of his horses gallop from a Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand box. “So even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I bought a couple of horses, went to work for a trainer at Emerald Downs and tried to learn as much as I could.”

Nations continued to work for FedEx on a part-time basis, but not for long. After working as an assistant for David Doutrich, he fully embraced the racetrack lifestyle, and by 2000, he and his wife Cheryl – a former vice president of marketing at the University of Washington – decided to go “all-in” on the horses.

Nations trained a handful of runners from 2001-2004, then worked as a jockey’s agent for two years at Emerald Downs. He set out on his own for good in 2009 and enjoyed his finest season in 2016, saddling 62 winners with purse earnings of $1,659,130.

Last year (to be precise, November of 2015) was also when the couple discovered the Oldsmar oval, after spending the previous two winters at Parx Racing outside Philadelphia. Nations still trains at Parx, but the opportunity to spend the coldest months of the year at Tampa Bay Downs has been an elixir.

“We absolutely love it here,” said the 56-year-old Nations. “Not only the racetrack, but all the people we’ve met and gotten to be good friends with. The whole Tampa Bay area is a beautiful place to be.”

A recent hot streak that included a victory by Nation’s Racing Stable’s 4-year-old filly Martini Glass and two victories by Vince Campanella’s 4-year-old gelding Thornton moved him into a tie for 11th in the standings with nine victories and clinched the monthly honor.

Nations, who keeps about 18 horses at Tampa Bay Downs while also overseeing strings at Parx and Laurel Park in Maryland, says the main dirt surface and the backstretch environment set Tampa Bay Downs apart from other tracks he’s been.

“It’s a kind surface for horses, so you can actually train a horse aggressively and really get them fit because of it,” he said. “And you don’t miss a lot of days battling the winter elements. I think it’s a big advantage being here, and when horses go to other places, they do extremely well.

“The backside is very relaxing. It’s wide-open, there isn’t a lot of noise and you can take horses out of their stalls and graze them. It’s like a park setting, and the horses seem to thrive on it,” he said.

Nations made a strong early impression last season, winning the Pasco Stakes with current 4-year-old Morning Fire, who went on to finish third in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Morning Fire, who is owned by Ernest Moody’s Mercedes Stables, also won the Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream as a 3-year-old. He was given time off after an off-the-board finish here in an allowance/optional claiming sprint on Jan. 15, but recently returned to the workout tab.

“It’s hard to find races for him because he is basically out of conditions, but I think we’re going to look to stretch him out (in distance),” Nations said.

Nations trains between 70-80 horses at any given time. He competes in the summer mostly at Delaware (where he finished in a tie for second last year) and Parx. In addition to Mercedes Stables and Campanella, his roster of owners includes Hank Nothhaft’s HnR Nothhaft Horseracing, a major supporter of the Pennsylvania racing industry.

One of his best horses for Nothhaft is the homebred 4-year-old colt Mister Nofty, who won the Grover Buddy Delp Memorial Stakes in August at Delaware at odds of 16-1.

“I’m very fortunate to have good owners who are very realistic about where to run their horses. It makes the job a lot easier when your owners have faith in you that you’re going to run their horses in the right spots,” Nations said. “Cheryl does a great job keeping everything organized for me, especially with us also being at Parx and Laurel. I also owe a lot of my success to the staff I have here and my assistants up north.”

Their help leaves him a few extra, cherished moments to reflect on how he and Cheryl wound up spending their last two winters in Tampa Bay.

“The great thing about this game is that I never wake up in the morning thinking ‘Darn, I’ve got to go to the track today,’ ” he said.  “There are times when it’s 8 at night and we’ll decide to check on the horses, and we get to the barn and see their heads pop out and hear them nicker when they see us.

“It really brings a lot of joy to us. In a lot of ways, this game is very therapeutic, if you let it be.”

Around the oval. Fernando De La Cruz and Pablo Morales, both of whom are natives of Peru, rode three winners today.

De La Cruz won the second race on Kowboy’s Deelite, a 3-year-old filly owned by Happy Tenth Stable and trained by Tony Wilson. Kowboy’s Deelite was claimed from the race by trainer Maria Bowersock for new owner Ralph E. Whitney.

De La Cruz added the third race aboard Designer Win, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Cindy Patrick and trained by R.G. Patrick. The rider also captured the sixth race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Epic Journey for owner Joseph N. Silich and trainer Anthony Granitz.

In the fifth race, a conditional allowance/$62,500 optional claiming event on the turf for horses 4-years-old-and-upward, 6-year-old gelding Johnny Bear and Morales led the field on a merry chase from the outset and had plenty in reserve to win by a length. Noble Thought finished second and Irish Strait was third.

Johnny Bear is an Ontario-bred owned by Colebrook Farms and Bear Stables and trained by Ashlee Brnjas. The winner’s time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth was 1:41.81.

Morales also won the seventh race on Sweet Yare N Dira, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Maximino Alvarado and trained by Angel M. Rodriguez. Morales added the eighth race on Yes I See, a 6-year-old gelding owned by William Rivera and trained by Victor Carrasco, Jr.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The feature race is the ninth, a mile-and-three-eighths turf event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward which have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less in 2016-17. The race is the final leg of the Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series.

Heading the field is the 5-year-old gelding Foxhall Drive, who is the 5-2 morning-line favorite. He is trained by Mandy Ness and will be ridden by Edwin Gonzalez.

Former trainer, friend to many dies. Long-time horseman and area resident Francois “Frank” Seremba died Wednesday night. He was 85. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Yolande. Arrangements are pending.

The Montreal natives were well-known during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s throughout the East Coast, New England and Canada via the exploits of their Circle Y Stable. While Frank saddled more than 1,300 winners, many at Sunshine Park (now Tampa Bay Downs), Yolande made the majority of breeding decisions for the stable.

Among their best horses were Marquise Cut, the 1987 New England 3-Year-Old Filly of the Year; graded stakes-placed Latimer; and Sir Tom, a 17-race winner. Frank was a director of the United Thoroughbred Trainers of America and trained for such luminaries as Detroit Red Wings owner Bruce Norris and Jean-Louis Levesque.

Seremba’s friendly smile and concern for his fellow man will never be forgotten by those he met. Officials of Tampa Bay Downs express their sincere condolences at his passing.

Top simulcast action on tap. Tampa Bay Downs will simulcast the last three races from Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday for wagering purposes, beginning with the Dubai Turf at 11:30 a.m. That will be followed by the Dubai Sheema Classic and the $10-million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline, featuring Arrogate, the 4-year-old sensation whose three previous races have resulted in victories in the Travers, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

Also on Saturday, three horses who have raced at Tampa Bay Downs this season are among the 12-horse field at Turfway Park for the $500,000, Grade III Jack Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes for 3-year-olds at a distance of a mile-and-an-eighth. Post time for that event, the 10th race on the Turfway card, is 5:55 p.m.

Parlor, an Eddie Kenneally trainee who won a 1-mile allowance/optional claiming contest here on Feb. 22, and King and His Court, a Mark Casse-trained gelding who ran unplaced in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 11, are both 5-1 on the Spiral Stakes morning line. Jesus Castanon will again ride Parlor, while Gary Boulanger keeps the mount on King and His Court.

Giant Payday, an Ian Wilkes-conditioned colt who finished second here on Jan. 27 in a mile-and-40-yard allowance/optional claiming race, is 8-1 on the morning line. He subsequently finished fifth in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the turf at Gulfstream. He will be ridden by Chris Landeros.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout April, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed. Otherwise, Tampa Bay Downs 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.