35 Years Ago, Sundays Were Silent At Tampa Bay Downs

Sunday racing returns to Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, which is welcome news for families, tourists and bettors seeking to enjoy an exciting weekend afternoon of Thoroughbred action or just soak up sunshine and atmosphere at the Oldsmar, Fla., track.

While a Sunday spent handicapping by the rail and watching kids toss Frisbees in the Backyard Picnic Area seems commonplace, it wasn’t always so. The first Sunday card in Tampa Bay Downs history took place on Dec. 7, 1986, and there was no way to predict how it would be received by the public.

Sunday racing became a reality after the state legislature decided to move Florida into step with more progressive fiefdoms.

“We are expecting a large crowd comparable to our Saturday crowds and maybe even better,” Lorraine King, the late Tampa Bay Downs general manager, said on the eve of the occasion. “If we can introduce new people to the sport of Thoroughbred racing by running on Sundays, then we are confident that they will enjoy themselves and come back on a more regular basis.”

At least one thing seemed to be working in the track’s favor: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing in Chicago, and you had to be kind of a masochist to stay home and watch the Buccos get plastered 48-14 by the defending Super Bowl champion Bears.

Still, King knew putting on a brave face wasn’t going to lure fans. So she instituted free grandstand admission and half-price clubhouse admission and added a free soft drink to go with every hot dog purchase.

Tampa Bay Downs also offered a handicapping seminar by noted Ocala turf writer and racing expert Bernie Dickman, plus a slate of races that included the first running of the Big John Naughton Ford Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds, offering a grandiose $15,000-added purse.

One thing King was sure of: the history-making event would draw lots of media attention. Reporters from the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and the Clearwater Sun all showed up to document the proceedings.

What they witnessed exceeded the expectations of the most optimistic observers. The turnstiles kept clicking throughout the day, with attendance of 5,893 surpassing the Opening Day crowd of 5,396 four days earlier.

While it’s unclear if King was sticking the needle to the Bucs when she told a Times reporter “Today was very much like the Super Bowl,” she had reason to feel giddy.

Total wagering handle was $496,680 (this was before the simulcasting era), and youthful faces made up a larger-than-usual portion of the crowd (minors were not legally allowed inside Tampa Bay Downs until two seasons later).

These days, calling it an “experiment” seems silly, but 35 years ago it was a big deal, and an avenue to so many of the positive changes that have taken place at Tampa Bay Downs in ensuing years.

“Sunday racing means that people who work the other days of the week now have the opportunity to come out and enjoy the races,” said track owner Stella F. Thayer, the Oldsmar oval’s president and treasurer, on the big afternoon.

“We’re really hoping Sundays will bring a whole new dimension for attendance opportunities.”

So, maybe the day was more of a Super Bowl-type event than anyone realized at the time (including Bucs’ fans, who would suffer through a 2-14 season).

“Naturally, if people unfamiliar with the sport are going to come out to Tampa Bay Downs, they are not as likely to wager as much as our more sophisticated patrons,” King said beforehand. “But … what I want to see is a lot of people. That means they will at least be exposed to the excitement of Thoroughbred racing.”

It would be fascinating to know how many are still coming. Probably more than anyone expected.

The post 35 Years Ago, Sundays Were Silent At Tampa Bay Downs appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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