by Mike Henry

When fans arrive at Tampa Bay Downs on Wednesday for the Opening Day of horse racing, Tom McLaughlin expects them to be impressed by what they see.

McLaughlin, the track’s Vice President of Facilities & Track Surfaces, and his crew spent much of the summer and early fall refurbishing the Grandstand, Clubhouse, paddock and barn area. In his 38 years as a track employee, he says the Oldsmar oval has never looked better.

“People have been cooped up for a while, and we wanted to make sure everybody gets kind of a ‘Wow’ factor when they come here,” McLaughlin said. “We want to give our patrons a nice, clean, fresh facility so they can fully enjoy everything Tampa Bay Downs has to offer.”

After a 2020-2021 season that featured four 10-percent purse increases for horsemen – despite the impact of COVID-19 – all signs point to continued growth.

Originally, McLaughlin and his team began by fixing the paddock roof, which was showing signs of wear due to weather and time. One thing led to another, and a full-fledged beautification project commenced.

“We decided to paint the paddock roof green to give it a fresher look, then we noticed that the front and side of the Grandstand (also green) needed touching up,” McLaughlin said. Next up were the jockeys’ room roof and the support beams and lower roof of the box seating area, along with regular ongoing maintenance chores.

While the “greening” of the buildings preserved the facility’s traditional vibe, the Grandstand and Clubhouse roofs were treated with a silicone coating, improving insulation.

More noticeable are the enhancements to the paddock walking ring, where horses and their jockeys make final adjustments before heading to the track for a race. Synthetic turf was installed, with twin white Tampa Bay Downs logos embedded into the surface. Besides improving drainage, the revamped paddock will help simulcast wagering viewers around North America easily recognize the Tampa Bay Downs signal.

The maintenance team was just getting started. On the backside, 78 new tack sheds were spread throughout the stable area, aiding trainers in need of storage space. Seven wash-rack stations were added, a development most welcome to horses returning from the racetrack in need of a bath on a warm afternoon.

 As happens each summer, barns were painted and fixed up as necessary. General maintenance on both the main track and the turf course, meanwhile, had begun after the June 30-July 1 Summer Festival of Racing.

“We added sand to the main track and spruced up the turf course. The safety of the horses is always our first concern,” McLaughlin said.

Another change certain to be welcomed by fans is the new-and-improved track website. Visitors to (same as before) will be delighted at the ease of navigation and the wealth of information available as they seek to access ways to enjoy a racetrack outing and keep up to date on daily developments.

The Downs Golf Practice Facility and The Silks Poker Room also have new opportunities for customer fulfillment.

At The Downs Golf Practice Facility, a 250-foot artificial grass teeing area was installed on the driving range to allow the natural grass to grow in better and give patrons good turf on a year-round basis. The range also has a 100-foot covershot that allows up to 10 shaded hitting areas.

Patrons interested in fattening their bankrolls away from the horses will be excited by next week’s opening of a new poker table-game area inside the main first-floor entrance of the Grandstand. The Silks Poker Room has designed the enclosure to offer games such as Ultimate Texas Hold ’Em and Three-Card Poker, with a $5 minimum.

While it is an exaggeration to suggest regular patrons will barely notice the place, it’s safe to say Tampa Bay Downs looks bolder and brighter than ever.


The sparkling track logo in the refurbished paddock

“It’s always nice for people to come into a clean, fresh facility where they can spend an enjoyable afternoon,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone in our department is proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

As many fans are aware, safeguards intended to fight COVID-19 have been relaxed. Masks are no longer required and there are no crowd-size limits. However, management asks that patrons practice social distancing whenever possible, especially in betting lines, and wash their hands frequently, especially after eating and using touch-screen betting machines.