Saturday, March 26, 2011

Track Visit: Tampa Bay Downs

What first strikes you when you arrive at Tampa Bay Downs is its size: it’s one of the smaller tracks I’ve ever visited. Given the surge in popularity that TBD has enjoyed and the increasing prominence of signature stakes on the Triple Crown Trail like the Tampa Bay Derby and the Sam Davis I think I was expecting more of a Pimlico/Laurel size to it. Of course size isn’t everything and you’d be sadly mistaken to write off TBD based upon a first impression from the parking lot.

Tampa Bay Downs’ location is excellent. Not too far from downtown Tampa (just outside in Oldsmar) but enough from the hustle and bustle to give you the impression of seclusion and ruralness. I got to the track on a dark day, Thursday, hoping to get my photo ID in order so I could get on the backside early on Friday morning, watch some works, visit with Tabby and the Rhones and, quite frankly, enjoy what to me is the greatest place in the world – the backside on a racetrack in the early morning hours.

Alas that was not to be. The state office was closed when I got there despite the sign that read it was open until 3 PM (it was 2:15). Apparently on dark days the office closes early if business is sparse, which I can completely understand. I was a bit bummed out, but took the opportunity to talk a walk through the relatively uncrowded facility. The ground floor of the grandstand has the requisite betting windows, but also a very large and prominent help area for folks looking for information, buying a program or needing assistance. The food offerings appeared at first glance to be standard fare but upon closer inspection there were additions like empenadas (which I really enjoyed!) and half roasted chickens to go with hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza. A nicely appointed bar rested in the back of the grandstand near the main simulcasting area. The grandstand itself is large and reminiscent of a large state fair venue: covered on top but open in front. Seating was plentiful and general admission seats were set behind a few rows of boxes that can be purchased for the meet and would be populated by owners and trainers the next day (see below).

The apron was filled with picnic tables and sloped nicely down to the racetrack. It was perfectly situated for the sunshine and I took a few minutes to revel in the late afternoon warmth knowing full well that in about 72 hours it was going to be 60+ degrees colder in my world with snow in the forecast. What I really liked about the apron area was that it was possible to walk all the way down to the turn for home in an area marketed as “The Backyard”. The Backyard is split from the main apron spread by the paddock and walking ring. What I really dig about that area is getting down there and watching the turn for home. To me the full power, majesty, speed and competitiveness of Thoroughbred racing is showcased on the turn for the finish. Jocks chirp and yell to their mounts, the field fans out for the final sprint and when you’re standing right there you can feel it all inside of you like deep base line thundering out of a woofer (below: Photo1 - view from the Backyard as horse go to load for a route; Photo 2 - turn for home).

All of the personnel I dealt with at TBD were great from the ticket writers to the state staff (who I met the next morning). On Wednesday I was led through the process of getting my badge and parking pass by a congenial security guard from Gloucester, Massachusetts, a few short miles from where I grew up and whose beaches I enjoyed as a youngster. When I got to the state office the next morning the very kind gentleman that helped me through that process had moved there from Woodbury, MN, my current hometown, ten years ago. The backside security guards got me my parking pass and showed me where Bernell’s barn was and seemed very happy to do so. The enjoyment that rubs off when you deal with people anywhere that are friendly and enjoy what they do really helped to make my Tampa Bay Downs time more pleasurable than almost any racetrack I’ve ever been to (I can’t help but keep Canterbury Park in first place).

The backside reminded me a bit of the front: somewhat dated but obviously cared for. You could drive throughout the backside which was a bit different than what I was used to during training hours. Needless to say, care was the watchword and the care barely hit 10 mph as I made my way to barn 9 on Friday morning.

The races that afternoon were well attended though a missing element – and it could be because it was a Friday afternoon – was youth. One thing racing is going to have to do if it’s going to start pulling itself out of its funk is to start operating when more people can attend. A 12:25 PM post time is not conducive to anyone who has a job coming out to the track. The day was brilliant and warm and sunny, which only further reminded me of the cold trip north that was going to start the next day. I bet a few, won more than I lost and walked away with a few buck (thanks mainly to the Rhone/Butler $145 daily double midway through the card) plus some TBD apparel for my wife and I.

Thanks for the day Tampa Bay Downs. I look forward to doing it again next year – and for more than a day and a half.

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