Updated on 02/03/2014 12:26AM

Tampa Bay Downs: Simulcast bettors have helped make track a major winter signal

Tom Cooley
On Saturday, Jan. 25, Tampa Bay Downs handled a staggering $6.2 million.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – They used to race on Tuesdays here at Tampa Bay Downs, a fairly obvious sign that they were not a major winter track.

Today, however, with simulcast gamblers having spoken with their dollars, Tampa essentially is the fourth-most popular winter signal in the country, behind only the power trio of Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, and Aqueduct. Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park also belong in that next tier of signals, but in whatever order they deserve to be ranked, Tampa has come a long way in climbing past them in the proverbial food chain.

Now Tampa runs what could be considered a conventional schedule, with Thursdays being added this month to make it a Wednesdays-through-Sundays slate.

“As years went on, we felt like we could be competitive with the other major signals in the simulcast market,” said Peter Berube, general manager at Tampa since 2001.

On Saturday, Jan. 25, Tampa attracted an all-sources handle of $6.2 million, more than Aqueduct ($6.1 million) and far more than Oaklawn ($3.3 million). This Saturday (Feb. 1), the track was expecting another huge day with a 12-race program that included two Grade 3 races, the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Stakes.

Perhaps the greatest allures for Tampa bettors are its melting-pot effect in races, along with a liberal use of a turf course built in 1997. Simply put, Tampa racing can be very stimulating for a horseplayer. On any given day, the Tampa entries include horses that spent the summer and fall in a wide variety of jurisdictions in the East and Midwest – the license plates of vehicles in the backstretch and grandstand parking lots accurately reflect this geographical diversity. As for turf races, they typically draw full fields dotted with horses from the barns of major trainers such as Graham Motion, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, among others.

“The racing is really good here,” said trainer Bob Jeffries, who came from Virginia to stay in the late 1980s and has served since 2000 as president of the Tampa Bay division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “Years ago, maybe not, but new guys come in now from different spots and they kind of get a wake-up call.”

Founded in 1926, Tampa endured numerous rough patches to get where it is now. Owned solely by 73-year-old Stella Thayer and her family since 1986, there still are a number of issues to be addressed as its national appeal has broadened, including a stigma involving trainers Jane Cibelli and Jorge Navarro, whose stables have been banned for the 2013-14 meet for medication transgressions; the domination of high-percentage trainer Jamie Ness, whose stable underwent what Berube described as an “earned surveillance” for a 30-day period last year; and an ongoing feud with Churchill Downs Inc.-owned Calder Race Course over simulcast signals and the valuable “host-track” designation that Tampa earned with the state by racing two dates last summer.

Also, there is a potential horse shortage due to the protracted battle between Gulfstream Park and Calder that depletes the available pool of shippers from the Miami-area tracks and training facilities; an undercurrent of grumbling from horsemen in regard to purse levels not being commensurate with the track’s substantial handle (for example, a maiden special weight race at Tampa has a purse of $24,000, compared to $47,000 at Gulfstream); and what Berube describes as “an unlevel playing field,” since Gulfstream, Calder, Indian casinos and other gambling facilities can legally offer more to their customers in the way of alternative gaming (Tampa has had only poker since 2004).

Berube was emphatic in describing how “our policing of the backside” has become “a major focus” for his management team and that “we feel our actions were proper” in ruling off Cibelli and Navarro.

As for the feud with Calder – and no one will say on the record that this is the reason – it seems more than coincidental that Churchill pulled its Kentucky Derby qualifying points (10 to the winner) from the Sam F. Davis after having incorporated the race into its points schedule last year. “Disappointing,” is how Berube described it.

The Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 is still part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, with 85 qualifying points distributed to the first four finishers.

The Gulfstream-Calder feud and its spillover effect for Tampa “hurts everyone,” said Allison De Luca, now in her eighth year as Tampa racing secretary. “We were always lucky before that we didn’t run against Calder. Now we just don’t have as many people shipping up.” Calder is about 275 miles away.

Through the first two months of a five-month meet that runs through Kentucky Derby Day (May 3), Tampa reported that field size (8.4 horses per race) was the same as at its 2012-13 meet. In addition, per-race handle “is basically the same” as last year, said Berube, although as of this weekend, 30 fewer races have been run for comparative purposes.

As for whether horsemen are getting their fair share of handle, Jeffries said he is satisfied with the present purse distribution and that he foresees making no major demands when the current contract is up following the 2014-15 season.

Despite these sticky matters, the overall atmosphere and mood at Tampa is upbeat.

Horsemen seem to truly enjoy racing and living here, and with a rugged winter raging up north, they appreciate having somewhere to go to dodge the ice and snow while also keeping their business humming along. Both the one-mile main track and seven-furlong turf course are universally praised; the main track has a high sand composition and is noticeably deeper than most, and horsemen frequently mention being very happy with its safety and uniformity.

“Tampa is a hell of a place, both the track and the surrounding area,” said Kentucky trainer Rob O’Connor, who has wintered here off and on for the past two decades. “A lot of us have bought second homes here. I’d even like to live here every winter after I retire.”

With strings at Santa Anita, Gulfstream, and Tampa, trainer Tom Proctor is currently active on three fronts, and he therefore brings context to any discussion about the pros and cons of winter racing in a warm climate.

“There are a lot of good things and bad things about Tampa, and it’s my opinion that the good outweighs the bad, although maybe part of that is because I prefer the sole-proprietor racetracks to the corporate ones,” Proctor said.

Proctor further reasoned that the relative success of Tampa Bay Downs can be gauged by how badly its constituents want to be involved. Fans and horsemen, after all, are people of free will.

“I say it’s like if you go to somebody’s house for dinner,” he said. “If you don’t like the peas, you just push ‘em aside.”