04/11/2003 11:00PM

Business is booming

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OLDSMAR Fla. - Pete Berube, vice president and general manager of Tampa Bay Downs, is a numbers man, a pragmatist who is not prone to wild statements. That's why his assessment of the current meeting is somewhat surprising.

"Fantastic, simply fantastic," Berube said. "I try to take a positive, yet realistic approach when I'm making projections about how our business will go, but this season has exceeded even my most optimistic hopes.

"I had projected that if we did $200 million in handle this season it would be a very good meeting, and as it stands now it looks like we're going to do something in the neighborhood of $233 million, which constitutes an increase in business of some $40 million," he said. "That increase reflects how our simulcast network continues to grow and get bigger and stronger."

The fifth purse increase of the meeting went into effect with Saturday's races and Berube noted that Tampa Bay Downs will have paid out purses of $2.2 million by the end of this meeting.

"We're averaging 9.25 horses per race in field size and that, to my knowledge, is as good as any track in the country this time of year," Berube, said. "I know there was a perception in the old days that a lot of outfits just came down here to soak up the sun and win a race or two, but we look for outfits who want to come here to run. Every year we've gotten more and more stables that look upon Tampa not as a lay up spot but as an important part of their overall schedule."

More than 6,300 fans attended the recent Florida Cup day here, a 12-race program highlighted by six $75,000 stakes that showcased Florida-breds.

"It was a first-class day all around and we're very pleased to be able to work in concert with the horsemen's groups to present such an afternoon of racing," Berube said.

Even though Berube concedes that simulcasting revenue is bound to peak eventually, he believes Tampa Bay Downs has a bright future.

"We hope to boost our ontrack handle and attendance next season, which will be a little down a little this year," he said. "The tourist industry as a whole in the state is slumping this winter and we're part of that industry. But overall I'm very bullish on the future. It's not bad when a minor league track like us can average $2.5 million a day in handle."