Despite On-Track Limitations, Tampa Bay Downs Enjoys Strong Betting Season

When Richard Grunder called the 37,587th and final race of his marvelous 37-year Tampa Bay Downs career on May 2, it was as if a giant balloon whished into another dimension, never to be recaptured.

While 21st Century technology permits fans to revisit Grunder’s greatest calls, such as the riveting Street Sense-Any Given Saturday duel in the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby, the Fan Appreciation Day card earlier this month was fraught with the reminder that change is inevitable in all avenues of life.

That truism had been reinforced when the 2020-’21 Oldsmar oval meeting resumed back on Nov. 25, slightly more than eight months after the COVID-19 pandemic turned everyone’s world upside down. No one was certain how Thoroughbred racing fans would respond to temperature checks, mandatory face coverings and strict social distancing. Attendance was limited to about 30 percent of capacity, resulting in a combined 20.22-percent decrease in on-track and in-state handle on Tampa Bay Downs racing from the 2018-2019 (non-pandemic) meeting.

But that was more than offset by a 20.87-percent jump in out-of-state handle, from $303,474,481 to $366,794,971. The Oldsmar oval’s deserved reputation as a winter hot spot that attracts runners from many of the top stables along the East Coast enabled the track to post a 16.62-percent increase in total commingled handle from 2018-2019, with the 2020-2021 season total of $394,698,371 more than $56-million above the figure from two seasons ago.

Average wagering handle per race jumped 18.62-percent, to $482,516, and average handle per entry rose 16.24-percent, to $58,370. Horsemen did their part, as the average field size increased about 2 percent, from 8.1 per race in 2018-2019 to 8.27.

The increase in wagering revenue was passed along to the horsemen. Tampa Bay Downs raised purses by 10 percent on four separate occasions, resulting in a 40-percent increase from Nov. 25 to the May 2 Closing Day card.

“Higher purses enable us to attract better horses, which in turn produces more fan interest and more wagering activity,” said Margo Flynn, the track’s vice president of marketing and publicity. “We are optimistic those trends will continue next season and beyond. Our main track and our turf course are regarded as being among the most consistent and safest surfaces in the country, which serves as another enticement for owners and trainers to bring their top horses to Tampa Bay Downs.”

And, over time, the fans started coming back as attendance restrictions were gradually relaxed and people became more comfortable following the mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols. Tampa Bay Downs remains a popular destination for regular customers, first-time visitors and vacationers hoping to make a few bucks while basking in Florida sunshine and savoring Thoroughbred competition.

“As this season progressed, we seemed to notice more new faces throughout the facility than in past years,” Flynn said. “It’s an encouraging sign that people are choosing an afternoon at the track as a fun activity to begin returning to some kind of normal lifestyle.”

The track’s biggest day of racing, the March 6 Festival Day card Presented by Lambholm South, lived up to its reputation for world-class racing. In the Grade 2, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, lightly raced 3-year-old colt Helium turned back all challengers, springing a 15-1 upset under 56-year-old jockey Jose Ferrer, a Tampa resident.

That same afternoon, fellow 3-year-olds Domain Expertise and Winfromwithin set records in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks and the Columbia Stakes, respectively. Such excellence was not overlooked by bettors, who wagered an all-time Tampa Bay Downs record of $15,229,366 on the day’s action.

The season climaxed on another high note, with a crowd of 4,872 – roughly half of what would be expected in “normal” years, but limited by COVID-19 – attending the May 1 card highlighted by the simulcast of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.

The gains in wagering and purse increases are positive signs for the 2021-2022 meeting, which begins on July 1 (the second day of the track’s two-day Summer Festival of Racing) before resuming in late November.

Tampa Bay Downs has positioned itself in recent years as the premier multi-entertainment facility on the west coast of Florida, with horse racing, The Silks Poker Room, The Downs Golf Practice facility and numerous fine-dining options luring new and repeat customers alike.

The competition to be leading jockey was tight throughout the meeting, with Samy Camacho and Antonio Gallardo trading the lead several times. Camacho, who had won the title in 2018-2019, overcame a 2-for-43 slump in the meeting’s second half to overcome his rival, riding four winners on May 2 to turn back Gallardo, himself a five-time track champion, by a 107-103 margin.

The trainer’s race, by contrast, was over almost before it had begun. Gerald Bennett possessed the numbers, the skill and the touch to send out 56 winners, 22 more than his closest pursuer, Jose H. Delgado. The title was the sixth in a row for Bennett, who along the way passed the late Frank H. Merrill, Jr., as the No. 1 Canadian-born trainer in racing history with 3,975 victories.

Track officials acknowledge it will take fans some time to get used to a new announcer (Grunder remains active in the sport as a jockey’s agent at Canterbury Park in Minnesota). “Richard’s departure will be keenly felt,” Flynn said. “Many fans and simulcast bettors associate his voice with Tampa Bay Downs, and the next announcer will have some big shoes to fill.”

For Tampa Bay Downs, which will celebrate its 96th anniversary season eager to build on past successes, Grunder’s trademark calls and vast knowledge are legacies to build on.

The post Despite On-Track Limitations, Tampa Bay Downs Enjoys Strong Betting Season appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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