View From The Eighth Pole: ‘The Saratoga Of The South’

by | 02.13.2018 | 11:34am

They don't write races at 1 1/16 miles and a few jumps. If they did, Vino Rosso might have gotten the money and 10 Kentucky Derby points in Saturday's Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Officially, the Curlin colt got just two Derby points while winding up third, beaten 1 ¼ lengths by a game Flameaway, who fought off odds-on favorite Catholic Boy the length of the stretch to win by a half length.

Vino Rosso spent most of the trip under jockey John Velazquez chasing the wire-to-wire winner while between horses. He fell back on the turn, then had clear sailing the length of the stretch when swung to the outside. The chestnut colt didn't really accelerate until the final 50 yards when his action seemed to change and he began striding out with more enthusiasm. A few jumps past the wire Vino Rosso was in front.

The next day, Todd Pletcher told TVG's Caton Bredar that Velazquez suggested it was time to try blinkers on Vino Rosso and the current plan was to bring the colt back for the G2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10. He'll need a win there to earn 50 Kentucky Derby points and ensure a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Vino Rosso came into the Sam F. Davis with victories in an Aqueduct maiden contest Nov. 11 and a Tampa Bay allowance race Dec. 22 in his only two starts.

You can almost mark it down today that Pletcher and Vino Rosso will win the 2018 Tampa Bay Derby. Vino Rosso looks like a colt with upside and his trainer said he figures to improve as the distances get longer (he's out of the Street Cry mare, Mythical Bride, who is a half sister to the dam of Belmont Stakes runner-up and WinStar Farm sire Commissioner). Pletcher's won the last three runnings of the Tampa Bay Derby and four of the last five (Verrazano in 2013, Carpe Diem in '15, Destin in '16 and Tapwrit in '17). He also chose Tampa Bay Downs to launch the 2017 campaign of eventual Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who broke his maiden there in January.

Going back to 2007, when Carl Nafzger used the Tampa Bay Derby as a springboard to winning the Kentucky Derby with 2-year-old champion Street Sense, the little track on Florida's west coast has gained national prominence. In addition to the Sam F. Davis, Saturday's card featured the victorious return in the G3 Tampa Bay Stakes of World Approval, the 2017 male turf champion; Dona Bruja, a top turf mare, who went wire to wire to win the G3 Endeavour Stakes; and a solid group of 3-year-old fillies in the ungraded Suncoast Stakes, won by Dale Romans-trained C.S. Incharge.

A total of $9.5 million was handled on Saturday's 12-race card, billed as Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. Roy Lermon's Florida-based Lambholm South breeding and training operation is the former Hobeau Farm of the late Jack Dreyfus, whose top runners included Beau Purple, Onion and Prove Out.

Less than $500,000 of Saturday's total handle was wagered on-track, which goes to show how popular the Tampa Bay signal has become with simulcast players over the years.

It's a business that track owner Stella Thayer and Peter Berube, vice president and general manager, have built up by trying to offer big fields, competitive racing and fair prices. Tampa Bay Downs currently ranks ninth nationally in the Horseplayers Association of North America track ratings that look at a variety of factors, including takeout and field size.

The on-track vibe is nice, too. I like to call it the Saratoga of the South because of the casual family atmosphere and the opportunity for fans to get so close to the horses as they are led in front of the grandstand to the saddling paddock at the top of the stretch. I'm told there's a nice indoor dining room, but for me there's no better way to spend a pleasant afternoon than to grab a freshly made deli sandwich, a cold beverage and a grandstand seat with a terrific view. There's a touch of Keeneland at Tampa Bay Downs, too, with the rows of neatly arranged benches on the track apron. Employees are friendly and helpful.

Though Saturday's on-track crowd of 5,147 bet less than $100 each ($490,837.20 was bet on-track), the fans seem knowledgeable and are respectful and enthusiastic. It's a mixture of snowbirds from up north, retirees and young families bringing their kids out to see the horses and jockeys.

It wasn't always that way, as trainer Dale Romans reminded me on Saturday. For decades, Florida law forbade minors inside the gates of any racetrack in the state.

“When I was a little kid, and my Dad (Jerry Romans) had horses here, I used to watch the races through that fence up there,” Romans said, pointing toward the top of the stretch.

The track, now part of an endless suburb north of Tampa, was built on what, at the time, was undeveloped land.

“There didn't used to be anything up here – just the racetrack and a flea market,” Romans continued. “Dad took us over to the flea market one year and we got a little puppy that was just loaded with fleas. For the longest time, I thought that's why they called it a flea market.”

The Oldsmar flea market, billed as “the mightiest in the south,” is still in business.

So is Tampa Bay Downs, which – while it does have a poker room – does not have the benefit of revenue from slot machines for operational expenses and purses. The track gets plenty of competition for the gambling dollar from the Seminole tribe's massive Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.

The sights, sounds and smell of Tampa Bay Downs remind me of my first experiences at the track when racing got into my blood 40 years ago. It's the kind of place that can make you fall in love with the sport all over again.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

  • CEOmike

    You just convinced me to visit. There is nothing that is so off-putting as going to the track and having to snake your way through old women and unshaven men who have been sitting at a slot machine for hours.

    A poker room, OK, that is another skill game like racing. Slots is just “fleece the stupid from their money.”

    • Raycing W

      Is it okay to snake through young women and shaven men?:)

      • StrideBig

        I just about spit my sweet tea out of my mouth! *chuckles*

  • riatea

    Never heard the Saratoga of the South thing, but have heard Santa Anita of the South, either way a fine compliment to a lovely track that deserves it.

    • Waquoit

      That “of the South” is quite the qualifier.

    • Decimus_D

      Yea… I have always heard of Oaklawn a the Saratoga of the South.

  • David Worley

    Great story Ray.

  • Elle D

    When I lived in South Florida, I always drove up for the Tampa Bay Derby and thoroughly enjoyed the day there. It does indeed have a nice on-track vibe , casual and friendly.

  • Michael Infurna

    It’s popular to wager on because juicers don’t dominate the entries like Oaklawn or Monmouth!!

    • H. S. Thornton

      Jamie Ness, Jane Cibelli, and Juicy Jorge have all run a lot of horses there over the years. Granted, not as much anymore

  • jimmy ski

    Always wondered why their purses weren’t greater for the money they handled.Hearing that handle of only 490,000.on track for their 2nd busiest day leads me to believe the horseman don’t much of the national simulcasting cut.I did enjoy my 1 trip there a few years ago.Margo was still picking instead of that “shades creature!

  • Billy Johnston

    A ‘GRANDSTAND’ what a novel idea!
    To bad Frank ‘struflex’ Stronach decided not to include one when he tore down the classic major league GULFSTREAM PARK.
    An apron with benches sounds comfortable.
    Staircases blocking the view on GP thin apron.
    Beautifully manicured Turf is appealing to viewers. Large size fields are enticing to horseplayers. Stella is doing a fine job to maintain Thoroughbred Racings following.
    She’s had a good reputation for dealing with people in a reasonable friendly manner.

  • Normcaraman

    What a insult to Saratoga..water smell like rotten eggs. 95 percent of trainers there couldnt compete at the spa.
    Stop the madness

    • Sophie

      Whoa hold on a second, there have been and still are some great trainers come out of Tampa, great horses make trainers not the other way around. Don’t kid yourself New York has its fair share of “bad” Trainers

    • PaulieWalnuts

      I usually agree with Ray but not in regards to TBD. Yes it’s a great place to spend a day at the races. Is it Saratoga of the South? Not even close. The majority of the patrons are snowbirds and it’s a great atmosphere but most aren’t even betting the races. TBD buses them in and gives them a section for mingling along with a cheap buffet, good marketing by TBD but they obviously aren’t chasing handle.
      Both the main track and turf course are top notch but they’ll never be taken seriously until Richard Grunder is replaced as track announcer. He is sub-par for a track that wants to be in the big leagues. When Michael Dubb won the Pasco Stakes last month Grunder mispronounced his name (pronounced it doob as in doobie), anybody who has a mild interest in racing knows about Michael Dubb.

      • PaulieWalnuts

        Another blown race call, 2/15/18 race 3 Richard Grunder calls that the 12 horse (Over to You) is “pulling away” as the 6 horse passes him up and wins by almost a length. Blows it again in the winners circle as he announces “returning to the winners circle is American Royal” when the horse was a maiden and was never in the winners circle. He does this quite often.

  • Paul

    Reminds me of Delaware Park….

  • SteveTG

    My, how times change. Back in the day we referred to Tampa as Finger Lakes South. ;)

  • Duke

    If business is so good, then why are the purses so low?

    • David Burris

      No slot money.

  • mike

    beautiful place, beautiful turf course, beautiful track. if the purses were better there would be 14 horse fields for every race.

  • FastBernieB

    I totally agree with Ray’s last paragraph. If you forget about purse levels, handle, trainer ability and other such things and focus strictly on enjoying a day at the races in a really nice environment, TBD is a great spot to spend an afternoon. My favourite way to spend a day in Florida starts at 10:00AM at The Downs golf practice facility adjacent to the racetrack where I can work on all aspects of my golf game. Around noon I go to TBD, grab a deli sandwich and a beverage and then take in the races from a trackside bench. Based on the numbers in the article, I wager more than the average on track amount but I find that the payoffs are substantial enough to keep me in the game.
    I’m not a shill for TBD but its my favorite on track experience in my 62nd year of attending the races.(I got hooked the first day my dad took me to Fort Erie, July 27,1957.)

    • C Hogan

      It’s great setting outside watching the races. Try sitting outside at Churchill Downs and you can’t here the person next to you for the loud music.
      Tampa a much better track for watching races.

    • Big G

      dear fastbernie, what’s wrong with the three day old sandwich for 10.00 bucks and the 6.00 beer at the track? oldtimers like yourself who are the lifeline of racing , should at the least be comped a nice lunch and a cool beverage of your liking,, when you attend the races,, racing needs to turn the clock back and take care of it’s patron’s with free parking and great food and drinks at low prices,, casino’s do it why tracks dont is beyond recall. good luck fastbernieB ,,, big g.

      • FastBernieB

        Hey Big G. I’m totally in agreement to being comped any time I can get it. That said, the “deli” sandwich is carved right off the roast as I stand there watching – usually $7 to $8 range but substantial enough that I don’t need much supper. The draft beer is reasonably priced also. Best value of all is the golf area where you can chip and pitch all day long if you want with the purchase of 1 bucket of balls. I can’t say it makes me a better golfer but it does slow down my deterioration. Cheers. Bernie

  • Irishgary

    It’s a nice track and we always have a great time there, but comparisons to Saratoga and Keeneland way off base.

  • Dave Kamp

    They should change the name back to what it used to be, the perfect name for the place.
    Sunshine Park

  • andy sakmar

    Nice article

  • nucky thompson

    Wonderful track and people. Indeed I refer to Saratoga as ” The Tampa Bay Downs of the North “

    • McGov

      Bahahahaha! Now THAT, is funny. :))))

  • Robert Millis

    With all due respect to the folks at Tampa Bay Downs who seem to be doing a good job….

    But isn’t ‘Saratoga of the South’ the tag that Hialeah Park had for decades?
    ( i hate to even bring up the name of that once-glorious place, for it deeply saddens me what’s transpired there)

  • tom reynolds

    Great article Ray ….. I need to get back there ….have not been for many years ……
    Tom Reynolds

  • Tom Davis

    “The Saratoga of the South”? Ray, I hope you mean the comfort of and the nice atmosphere of both tracks and not the quality of horses.

  • Quickie

    Oaklawn can’t be Saratoga of the south. Saratoga is Oaklawn of the North. Oaklawn has taken over. I’ve seen NX3s here that are as strong as a graded stake. The purses will be over 100 next 3 years

    • Guest

      It’s like saying Harvard is the Vanderbilt of the North.

    • jimmy ski

      I disagree with your statement.You rarely ever see a 3x at oaklawn and looking at the overall quality of allowance fields i’d say Fair Grounds this year is deeper than OP.I think a few trainers got tired of butting heads with Todd and Chad and went to FG instead.Oaklawn needs a turf course to be loaded with the best trainers.All the big boys have a lot of turf runners.

  • Canarse

    Went there for the Tampa Bay Derby a few years back. Couldn’t believe how well treated we were by the staff. Love the place. We called it the Little Track that Could. Every track can’t have the best horses. The other horses need a place to run, too. Handicapping is still the same.

  • Debra G

    My first time to Florida and TBD was last weekend..wonderful track, loved their turf course. Seeing World Approval up close and win made my day. I could tell some of the East Coast gamblers by their lively hollering during the Aqueduct races on the simulcast TVs.

  • InStrikingDistance

    A fun little track, which has improved. I note however, they have adopted the annoying move by GP to actually have the starting gates open about 5 mins after scheduled post time. I assume for betting purposes.

  • Drew Mollica

    Much of Tampa’s success is due to one person, Allison DeLuca the racing secretary. She is simply stated the best in the business, she has come a long way from our days at Hawthorne and Sportsman’s Park! I am over the moon proud of her and managment at Tampa should be as well! Bravo!

  • Monrovia Damon

    Tampa always looks like a neat track to visit and think I may finally be heading down there next week if a race goes. Thanks for the great and timely insight Ray! Now I’ll know what to check out

  • BK

    TBD is another bucket-lister for me. Looks so beautiful on TV as they head into the far turn. Been fortunate enough to go to Keeneland and Monmouth as well as Saratoga. All are great venues with a lot of charm and a great atmosphere. If TBD is in the same conversation as those, sign me up. Sounds like a great destination some year to get out of the frozen Northeast.

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