Tampa Bay Downs: now this is how to run a race course

A recent three-day trip to Tampa, Florida, which was the scene of such a brilliant Derby Festival day on Saturday, reminded me once again why it is one of my favorite race-day experiences in America.

Tampa Bay Downs is a beautiful facility in which to enjoy a great day of live racing. The grandstand/clubhouse is an attractive, well maintained building that will seat 6,000 (4,300 in the grandstand and 1,700 in the clubhouse) and there are two exquisitely maintained racing surfaces.

Both the dirt and the turf tracks have excellent horse safety records and many horsemen contend that the Tampa turf course is the best surface of its kind in the country during the winter.

The one-mile dirt track consists of sand and loam, and the seven-furlong turf course operates with four rail settings: 0 feet, 12 feet, 24 feet and 30 feet.

Tampa Bay Downs provides one of my favorite days of live racing for many reasons.

  • It has attractive and well maintained facilities on both the front and back sides of the racetrack.

  • The ownership and management teams are deeply experienced and focused on all the constituencies that make up a successful race-day: their staff, the owners, the trainers and their staff, the jockeys, the breeders and, perhaps most importantly, the racing customers.

  • Throughout the track there is an extremely friendly customer service environment.

  • High-quality and attractive racing surfaces are viewed with clear sight lines from virtually all of the seats in the grandstand/clubhouse.

  • A beautiful, large open paddock area is situated just north of the grandstand for easy viewing as the horses prepare to go out on the track.

  • The quality of racing exceeds the financial structure of the purses.

  • Over the last decade, management has reduced its takeout structure of the betting menu from one of the highest in the country to one of the lowest in most betting pools. Here is an article from our friends at the Paulick Report that reflects the philosophy of General Manager Peter Berube on takeout.

I think some history on how the track developed over the years helps explain the success of the business today.

In 1965, Chester Ferguson, father of Stella Thayer and her brother Howell Ferguson, the current owners of the track, headed a group of Tampa sportsmen who purchased the track, Sunshine Park, and changed the name to Florida Downs and Turf Club. In 1980, the track name changed again to Tampa Bay Downs. In 1986, Stella Thayer and Howell Ferguson bought it in its entirety at auction.

At the time, there was only one graded stake there, the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. In 1990, the race lost its graded status. The track then had no graded stake until the Florida Oaks was designated a G3 in 1996. The Florida Oaks lost and regained its G3 status and has been run as a turf race since 2013.

The Tampa Bay Derby regained its G3 in 2002 and then was upgraded to a G2 in 2011.

Tampa now has four additional graded stakes races: the Hillsborough, which became a G3 in 2004 and was upgraded to a G2 this year, the Endeavor, which was made a G3 in 2008, the Sam F. Davis, which became a G3 in 2009, and the Tampa Bay Stakes, named a G3 in 2011.

In addition to these six graded stakes, the track is running 16 additional stakes races during the 2015-2016 season.

An important trial for the Kentucky Derby

Over the last decade, the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby has become an important qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby. In 2007, Street Sense won the the race en route to winning at Churchill Downs. Three years later, Super Saver ran third at Tampa and went on to win the Derby. Then, in 2013, the top three finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby, Verrazano, Java’s War and Falling Sky, all went on to compete at Churchill Downs.

Whether Destin, who set a track record (1:42.82) when winning this year’s running on Saturday (pictured - photo: SVPhotography), is in that class only time will tell, but he is certainly now one of the early favourites for the Kentucky Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Twin Creeks Racing Stables. Ridden by Javier Castellano, he got the better of stablemate Outwork (John Velazquez) by a length after a sustained duel the entire length of the stretch.

The race was just one of the highlights on a fantastic Tampa Bay Derby Festival Day on Saturday. One race earlier, in the mile-and-an-eighth Hillsborough, there was another track-record (1:46.26), when last season’s Breeders’ Cup Mile winner, Tepin, closed nine lengths in the stretch to defeat Isabella Sings, another from the Todd Pletcher stable.

Tepin, owned by Robert E. Masterson and trained by Mark Casse, was ridden brilliantly by regular jockey Julian Leparoux. According to the owner, Tepin will go back against the boys in the Makers’ 46 Mile at Keeneland on April 15.

A crowd of 10,206 watched Saturday’s action on a beautiful bright sunny Florida day. The all-source wagering handle of $12,250,446 on the 12-race card obliterated the previous record of $10,949,948, set on the same day in 2011.

Turf course has played a significant role

I believe the most significant strategic capital investment the current ownership has made at Tampa was when building the seven-furlong turf course.

It was designed and built “in-house” by the then track superintendent, Robert Cassanese. Ground for the track was broken in May 1997 and the first turf race was conducted over the new surface 12 months later.

The turf course played an important role in transforming Tampa from a small regional track to a nationally recognized racing venue. Today, trainers such as Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Tom Proctor, Jonathan Sheppard, Graham Motion and Shug McGaughey ship their horses in from Palm Meadows, Palm Beach Downs and Payson Park to compete on this highly regarded surface.

Along they way, there were other significant projects that added to the consumer appeal of the facility and also helped diversify the business.

  • In 1992, the picnic area just north of the paddock was opened and today is a very popular location for “kids’ and family days” every other Sunday during February and March.

  • In 2003, the Downs golf practice facility, with a PGA teaching staff, was opened and became the finest learning and practice environment in the area.

  • In 2004, the Silks poker room, elegant, non-smoking and air-conditioned, with 30 poker tables, was opened on the third floor of the grandstand. It operates year-round.

  • Last year the company bought the Tampa greyhound track, which is about 15 miles due east. There is no live dog racing there at the moment, but it is an important simulcasting and distribution outlet for the Tamp Bay Downs live track signal.

Tampa Bay Downs is truly a gem in a relatively small market.

The city of Tampa ranks 53rd in the U.S. in city population. Tampa Bay Downs conducts racing from late November through the Sunday after the Kentucky Derby. There are roughly 90 racing days each calendar year. The race course also stages a two-day summer festival on June 30 and July 1 each year.

In 2024-2015, Tampa’s all-source handle was $372.6 million and its daily average all-source handle was $4.2 million from an average field size of 8.75 horses per race.

The average daily attendance was 3,263. Average daily purses were $168,728 and average purse per race was $17,162. Total purses for the meet were $15,016,770.

Punching above its weight in winter

While Tampa is a small track in a small market, it outperforms many larger markets during the winter. The daily all-source handle throughout the meet is consistently fourth in the nation behind Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Aqueduct, all of which have substantially larger purse structures and larger population bases. On Tampa Derby Festival Day, Tampa can often be the highest handling track in America.

As I mentioned above, the stability in track ownership and senior management contributes to the financial performance and on-track experience.

Stella Thayer and her husband, Bronson, have deep roots in the Tampa community and have been involved in many philanthropic and civic endeavors. Stella has been very active in the horse racing industry as an owner and breeder and is a past president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and a past president and current board member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The management team at Tampa is talented, experienced and passionate about Thoroughbred racing, which clearly shows in the daily operation of the track.

Peter Berube has been Vice President and General Manager since 2001. Margo Flynn, Vice-President of Marketing and Publicity, joined Tampa as the Director of Publicity in 1995. Richard Grunder is enjoying his 32rd year as the track announcer. The quality of the racing surfaces and the condition of the facilities can be attributed to the 30 years-plus experience that Tom McLaughlin, Vice-President of Facilities and Track Surfaces, has had at Tampa Bay Downs.

Finally, it is worth noting some of the dynamic programs Tampa has for its customers - from the serious handicapper to the first-time visitor. Here are a few examples:

Tampa Downs Player Rewards Program Concierge Service

The track’s top 250 on-track players have their cards scanned whenever they arrive in the parking lot. A text is sent to Concierge Service and a Player Rewards service rep is informed where the customer is on track. Ushers, restaurant and bar employees and mutual clerks are alerted. A rep from the Concierge Service greets the player and checks out his or her requirements. It would make sense if every track did this.

Tampa Bay Downs VIP Program

The track’s current mailing list is analyzed to model “like” customers by address, household income, vehicle type, credit card info and job history. Mailing lists are purchased for potential customers that mirror these attributes, and they are mailed a “Day at the Races” promotion for up to six people.

Those who take advantage get free admission, programs, box seats and a $2 mutuel voucher. These VIP customers are directed to a customer service counter on arrival and are visited by track management throughout the day. Five thousand VIP invitations are mailed monthly during the live meet and the monthly response rate is over 25 percent, which is extraordinarily high for this type of promotion.

Tampa Bay Downs Groupon racetrack outing promotion

Tampa was the first racetrack known to offer a value-loaded, reduced price Groupon promotion. It provides four different options, with discounted valet parking, clubhouse admission, track program, $2 betting voucher, and $5 food voucher. The program has been successful in returning over $50,000 of net margin in its first two months. It also is a great way to introduce new customers to the track.

The racing experience: nobody does it better

Social media today has to be part of any race course’s marketing playbook. Tampa Bay Downs, was an early entrant in social media platforms, has an active presence on Facebook and Twitter and has added programs on YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.

During the current racing season, it has added Periscope to the live media offerings. Periscope  is a live video streaming app for your phone, and Tampa has been using it for trainer/jockey interviews, handicapping sessions and so on. Periscope was bought by Twitter in January 2015, and in December Apple named Periscope the iPhone app of the year.

Anyone familiar with the Thoroughbred racing industry will be aware that the handle (total amount wagered) on U.S. races peaked in 2003 at $15.18 billion and last year had declined to $10.68 billion.  

There is much competition for the entertainment/gaming dollar and the advanced deposit account wagering companies make it easy for the customer to bet from anywhere they can use a phone or a computer. Account wagering and simulcast outlets can provide wagering convenience off-track for existing customers.

However, I firmly believe the only way to attract and educate new customers is through the live racing experience, and no racetrack does that better than Tampa Bay Downs.

But don’t take my word for it. Tampa Bay Downs will be running live races four days a week through Sunday May 8. Make an effort and get there yourself with a few friends. You will be glad you did.

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