01/14/2011 4:33PM

Tampa Bay Downs not just a sleepy little track anymore

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Barbara D. Livingston
Early Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo is expected to race at Tampa Bay Downs this meet.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Some of the old-timers still at Tampa Bay Downs were here when the track was called Florida Downs. “Even heard a lot of stories from when it was Sunshine Park,” said Ernie Mello, who still trains a three-horse stable out of Barn 5.

Those were the days of Tampa often being derided as a non-factor on the North American racing scene. “I had two or three jobs at a time because there just wasn’t any money here,” said Mello, 78. “Everybody did. Had to.”

Times change. Not that everybody is making a killing here, but Tampa, through the years, clearly has inched up the North American racing chain, both in perception and reality. Two of the last four Kentucky Derby winners, Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010), had key Derby preps here, while trainer Todd Pletcher has said he intends to run the early favorite for the 2011 running, Uncle Mo, in either the Feb. 12 Sam F. Davis or the March 13 Tampa Bay Derby before proceeding to the Wood Memorial and then on to Churchill Downs.

Other top horses, including War Pass and Gio Ponti, had races here in recent years. Interestingly, all of those big-namers – Street Sense, Super Saver, War Pass, and Gio Ponti – were defeated at Tampa.

“This is no pushover track,” said Tony Reinstedler, one of at least a dozen trainers here who otherwise race primarily in Kentucky. “Not anymore.”

Reinstedler and other horsemen say the installation of the Tampa turf course in 1998 was a “huge” step in the right direction, along with increasing interest from simulcast bettors and other factors, not to mention the favorable climate. “There’s no better turf course in the country,” said Reinstedler. “Aside from that, the bottom line is that horses leave here better than when you got here. It’s a heck of a place to train a horse in the winter.”

This track opened in 1926 as Tampa Downs, with Col. Matt Winn, the famed Kentucky Derby promoter, among the original investors. As time passed, the track underwent numerous name and ownership changes, transformations, and improvements. It was called Sunshine Park from 1947-65, Florida Downs from 1966-79, then Tampa Bay Downs in 1980. The track is now owned by Stella Thayer, who in November 1986 bid $16.5 million at auction to buy out George Steinbrenner, who had been a 50-50 partner since 1980.

For much of its history, Tampa was known for its unpretentious charm and not-so-fast horses. Famed sportswriters such as Grantland Rice and Red Smith would spend the occasional afternoon here while in Florida for spring-training baseball and bet on bottom-rung claimers. “Sunshine is more than typical of a web of smaller tracks like Ascot, Cranwood, and Wheeling Downs that make up the second echelon of Thoroughbred racing in the United States,” Bill Leggett wrote in a late-1950s article in Sports Illustrated.

Regardless of the quality of racing or the size of the purses, Tampa long has been a melting pot for stables that integrate the winter here into a schedule that otherwise consists of racing at northern tracks. Trainers who will leave here in April for Kentucky, Chicago, Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, and both eastern and western Canada are among those filling the nearly 1,500 stalls. A nearby training center called Infields has another 300 stalls filled, while a sizable number of shippers from Ocala and the Miami area consistently give Tampa racing secretary Allison DeLuca and her staff plenty of horseflesh to work with.

“We’re all very pleased with the interest that horsemen from across the country show in our track,” said DeLuca, who is in her fifth year here.

For the first 19 days of the 2010-11 meet, fields averaged about 9.4 starters per race, an outstanding number by North American standards, and an increase from 9.0 during the comparable period in 2009-10. As with virtually all tracks, off-track business comprises more than 90 percent of the total handle, which has averaged more than $4.2 million per day thus far, an increase of nearly 4 percent over last year. On numerous times in recent seasons, aggregate business records have been broken here, and although the numbers do not approach those typically posted at bigger tracks, they are very respectable.

Clearly, for a number of reasons, Tampa has found its niche in the national simulcast market, and this success has played a role in allowing the facility and grounds to remain in nice shape, with many areas of the three-floor grandstand and clubhouse having been modernized in recent years. Located on the city outskirts near the suburb of Oldsmar in a somewhat isolated area, with towering scrub pines encircling much of the one-mile dirt oval, Tampa is surely one of the quietest racetracks in America. “Even out on the track, you can barely hear the hooves pounding,” said Paula Bacon, who rode and trained horses here for years.

It might still qualify as a sleepy little track on the “other” coast of Florida, but horsemen, officials, and fans at Tampa seem quite satisfied with the foothold they have achieved on the North American racing landscape.

“You see the big guys come in here to run all the time now,” said Mello, referring to accomplished trainers such as Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, and Carl Nafzger regularly running horses at Tampa. “That tells you something right there. This place has changed a whole lot over the years. It’s tougher, but it’s better.”