by Mike Henry

Sunday racing returns to the Oldsmar oval in two days, welcome news indeed for families, tourists and bettors seeking to enjoy an exciting weekend afternoon of Thoroughbred action or just soak up sunshine and atmosphere.

While a Sunday spent handicapping by the rail and watching kids toss Frisbees in the Backyard Picnic Area seems commonplace, it wasn’t always so. The first Sunday card in Tampa Bay Downs history took place on Dec. 7, 1986, and there was no way to predict how it would be received by the public.

Sunday racing became a reality after the state legislature decided to move Florida into step with more progressive fiefdoms.

“We are expecting a large crowd comparable to our Saturday crowds and maybe even better,” Lorraine King, the late Tampa Bay Downs General Manager, said on the eve of the occasion. “If we can introduce new people to the sport of Thoroughbred racing by running on Sundays, then we are confident that they will enjoy themselves and come back on a more regular basis.”

At least one thing seemed to be working in the track’s favor: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing in Chicago, and you had to be kind of a masochist to stay home and watch the Buccos get plastered 48-14 by the defending Super Bowl champion Bears.

Still, King knew putting on a brave face wasn’t going to lure fans. So she instituted free Grandstand admission and half-price Clubhouse admission and added a free soft drink to go with every hot dog purchase.

Tampa Bay Downs also offered a handicapping seminar by noted Ocala turf writer and racing expert Bernie Dickman, plus a slate of races that included the first running of the Big John Naughton Ford Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds, offering a grandiose $15,000-added purse.

One thing King was sure of: the history-making event would draw lots of media attention. Reporters from the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and the Clearwater Sun all showed up to document the proceedings.

What they witnessed exceeded the expectations of the most optimistic observers. The turnstiles kept clicking throughout the day, with attendance of 5,893 surpassing the Opening Day crowd of 5,396 four days earlier.

While it’s unclear if King was sticking the needle to the Bucs when she told a Times reporter “Today was very much like the Super Bowl,” she had reason to feel giddy.

Total wagering handle was $496,680 (this was before the simulcasting era), and youthful faces made up a larger-than-usual portion of the crowd (minors were not legally allowed inside Tampa Bay Downs until two seasons later).

These days, calling it an “experiment” seems silly, but 35 years ago it was a big deal, and an avenue to so many of the positive changes that have taken place at Tampa Bay Downs in ensuing years.

“Sunday racing means that people who work the other days of the week now have the opportunity to come out and enjoy the races,” said track owner Stella F. Thayer, the Oldsmar oval’s President & Treasurer, on the big afternoon.

“We’re really hoping Sundays will bring a whole new dimension for attendance opportunities.”

So, maybe the day was more of a Super Bowl-type event than anyone realized at the time (including Bucs’ fans, who would suffer through a 2-14 season).

“Naturally, if people unfamiliar with the sport are going to come out to Tampa Bay Downs, they are not as likely to wager as much as our more sophisticated patrons,” King said beforehand. “But. … what I want to see is a lot of people. That means they will at least be exposed to the excitement of Thoroughbred racing.”

It would be fascinating to know how many are still coming. Probably more than anyone expected.

Around the oval. The annual “10 Days of Festivus Online Handicapping Contest” concluded today, with contestant “Tuckman” taking first-place money of $1,000 with a final contest bankroll of $247.60 and “Hank55” capturing second-place money of $500 with a final bankroll of $223.20. More information about the winners will be forthcoming in a subsequent press release.

Platinum Gem, a 2-year-old filly owned by Classic Run Farm and trained by Maria Bowersock, turned in a strong performance in today’s third race, a $31,500 allowance/optional claiming sprint. She ran five rivals off their feet while setting fractions of 21.88 seconds for the quarter-mile and 44.92 for the half, then finished with resolve to defeat Eros’s Girl by two lengths in a time of 1:11.44 for the 6 furlongs.

It was the second victory in a row for Platinum Gem, who was ridden by Pablo Morales while carrying 122 pounds, 4 more than her opponents. Classic Run’s owners, Patricia and Michael Grimes, are residents of nearby Webster, Fla.

Bowersock said Platinum Gem could be a candidate for the $125,000 Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Jan. 15.

Huber Villa-Gomez and Antonio Gallardo each rode two winners today. Villa-Gomez won the second race on Rockysbuckaroo, a 7-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Pine Branch Stable and trained by John Pimental. Villa-Gomez added the seventh on the turf with Hype Man, a 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding bred and owned by Carole A. Rio and trained by David Fisher.

Gallardo captured the fourth race on the turf on Skipperini, a 2-year-old Florida-bred gelding bred and owned by Edward R. Schuster and trained by Peter Wasiluk, Jr. Gallardo also won the sixth on Amani’s Image, a 2-year-old filly owned by Sumaya U.S. Stable and trained by Ben Colebrook.

High Rollers Handicapping Contest is Jan. 8. The annual High Rollers Handicapping Contest Presented by HorseTourneys is Jan. 8, with first prize (based on 100 players) of $20,000. Players are required to deposit $1,000 to enter, with $500 serving as the player’s bankroll for wagering and the remaining $500 going to the prize pool. At the conclusion of the tournament, any dollar amount remaining in the bankroll remains the property of the player.

Wager types permitted are win, place and show only, with each player making five $100 win, place and/or show bets during the tournament. The player with the highest bankroll takes top prize (50 percent of the prize pool), plus a seat in either the 2022 or 2023 National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, plus accommodations.

To enter, register at www.tampabaydowns.com and make the required $1,000 payment by noon on Jan. 8. For details, contact Margo Flynn at mjflynn@tampabaydowns.com or (813) 855-4401, extension 1368.

Thoroughbred racing continues Sunday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:15 p.m. Sunday is also the first day of the track’s annual “Calendar Giveaway,” with the 2022 edition given away free to the first 5,000 patrons. The calendar features a variety of images certain to enhance fans’ enjoyment of the track and the horses.