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History Challenge: Tampa Bay Downs
Uncle Mo will likely stay in south Florida to make his 3-year-old debut Saturday, but the fact that his connections initially planned to run in the Tampa Bay Derby and are keeping that race as a backup is further indication of how far the Oldsmar, Fla., track has come in recent years.
A decade ago, a juvenile champion from the prior year appearing at little Tampa Bay Downs was almost unimaginable.
That changed in 2007, when champion Street Sense won the Tampa Bay Derby en route to winning the Kentucky Derby. A year later, champion War Pass finished last in the same race and never made it to Louisville.
Last year, Super Saver, who was not a champion, finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby but took home the roses at Churchill Downs in May.
While tracks without slot machines have struggled in recent years, 85-year-old Tampa Bay Downs has come of age, breaking its own records for attendance and handle nearly every year – without the help of slots.
Since installing a turf course in 1998, Tampa Bay has become popular not only with horsemen, but with the locals as well. And bettors at simulcast sites nationwide have been attracted to competitive racing and full fields.
Test your knowledge of the track’s history.
1. Col. Matt Winn of Churchill Downs fame and Ohio investor Harvey Mayers opened the track as Tampa Downs in 1926.
It was a financial struggle, and the meet – swimming in red ink – closed after 39 days. Attempts were made to reopen the track in the 1920s and 1930s, but, for the most part, they failed and nearly all of the facilities were eventually dismantled. The track was rebuilt and reopened as Sunshine Park in 1947.
In the mid-1960s, millions of people from coast to coast – most of whom were probably not racing fans or had ever been to a track – regularly watched the sport from Sunshine Park. Why were the races from this little-known track televised around the country?
2. Matt Winn and Harvey Mayers picked for the location of their track the tiny community of Oldsmar – 37,541 acres owned and developed by Ransom E. Olds, pioneer of the Oldsmobile automobile. The site was chosen to draw fans from the surrounding cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater.
The richest race that first season rewarded the winner with $4,450 – a huge figure for that era. What was the now-prominent name of the race?
3. This future Hall of Fame jockey was practically born on a horse – taking care of them and helping to train them from the age of 4 on the family farm in Coloma, Mich.
The rider began taking mounts and winning races at non-recognized, non-parimutuel tracks in the late 1970s and eventually came to Churchill Downs, working as a groom and stable hand.
The first race of the jockey’s career on a recognized Thoroughbred track came Jan. 30, 1981, at Tampa Bay Downs; with the first winner coming two weeks later at the Oldsmar track. Name the jockey.
4. When champion Street Sense won the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby en route to victory in the Kentucky Derby, he secured the track as a legitimate place for Triple Crown hopefuls to compete.
However, a year earlier, another horse who won Tampa Bay’s Sam F. Davis Stakes before finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby could claim that he also played a role in putting the Oldsmar track on the map. He went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Name him.
5. The only stakes race at Tampa Bay named for a horse is the Wayward Lass Stakes, run in late February. Wayward Lass, bred in Florida, was the 1981 champion 3-year-old filly. She never raced at Tampa Bay Downs, however.
Two years after Wayward Lass won her Eclipse Award, this then-unheralded, but future Hall of Fame inductee made his first two starts as a 3-year-old at Tampa Bay. He went on to win an Eclipse Award both that year and the following year. Name him.
1. In the mid-1960s, a syndicated program called, “Let’s Go to the Races,” was shown in major television markets throughout the country.
The half-hour program featured five races each week, complete with post parade and winner’s circle ceremony, from Sunshine Park. They were old races on film.
The program was used by local supermarket and drugstore chains as promotional contests. Customers were given a game card for the following week’s races each time they checked out. The card contained one horse’s number for each race. Prizes varied by market.
Renowned sportscaster and race announcer Jack Drees served as host of the program. He described each horse in the post parade and called the races (dubbing over the original calls), using both the horses’ names and numbers.
He would open each program with the words, “I’m Jack Drees at Sunshine Park in Oldsmar, Florida.”
Other versions of the program appeared in future years, including one in the early 1980s with Chicago’s Phil Georgeff calling the races.
Sunshine Park was sold and renamed Florida Downs and Turf Club in 1966, and Tampa Bay Downs in 1980.
2. Not surprising, because of Matt Winn’s involvement, the biggest race of the 1926 opening season at Tampa Downs was the Florida Derby.
With Tampa Downs failing to reopen, Hialeah Park took over the Florida Derby in 1929.
But in time, Joseph E. Widener, owner of Hialeah Park and a racing legend credited with making that track the most beautiful racecourse in America, grew to believe there were too many races with the name “Derby,” so in 1937, he changed the name of the Florida Derby to the Flamingo Stakes.
Ironically, Widener bred and owned the last horse to win the Florida Derby at Hialeah – Brevity in 1936.
The Grade 1 Florida Derby we know today was first run at Gulfstream Park in 1952.
3. Julie Krone rode her first winner at a recognized racetrack on Feb. 12, 1981, aboard Lord Farkle at Tampa Bay Downs.
In the years that followed, Krone went on to ride more winners (3,704) than any female jockey in history. She is the only member of her sex to win riding championships at Belmont Park, Gulfstream Park, Monmouth Park, the Meadowlands, and Atlantic City Race Course.
In 1993, Krone became the first – and to date only – female rider to win a Triple Crown race when she guided Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes.
The hallmark of her career came in 2000 when she became the first – and to date only – woman inducted in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
4. Winner of the Remsen Stakes as a 2-year-old, Bluegrass Cat made his 3-year-old debut a winning one in 2006 in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, a race named for the man who was president of the track from 1972-1980.
The colt finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby and fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes before being runner up to Barbaro in the 132nd Kentucky Derby.
Bluegrass Cat skipped the Preakness but came back with a game second in the Belmont Stakes behind Jazil. Bluegrass Cat next won the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and then finished second to Bernardini in the historic Travers Stakes, after which he turned up lame and was retired.
5. Tampa Bay Downs was barely on the Triple Crown trail radar screen in 1983 when Slew o’ Gold finished third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and a troubled second in the Tampa Bay Derby.
A son of Seattle Slew, Slew o’ Gold went on to capture a division of the Wood Memorial Stakes before finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
He won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male that year and champion handicap male a year later.
Another noteworthy Tampa Bay Derby starter was Menifee, who finished second in the race in 1999 en route to being second, beaten only a neck, in the Kentucky Derby.