words & pictures by NICOLLE NEULIST
Sam F. Davis Stakes weekend at Tampa Bay Downs has taken root as my winter tradition. I visited Oldsmar, Florida, for the first time last year during this same weekend, and I loved it so much I had to return this year.
Saturday’s Festival Preview Day is everything a big race day should be. The grandstand and the apron are busy, but there is space to move around. For someone who does not love huge crowds, it’s a happy medium. Space along the rail or by the paddock is plentiful; i.e., you’re guaranteed to get a good view of your favorite horse.
The Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) headlined Saturday’s card, and one of its entrants started my day. Just after arriving at the track, I spotted Sam F. Davis contender Fact Finding getting a little race day hose-off. The distinctive roan, undefeated in three starts leading into the Davis, looked alert, happy, and well settled-in as the sun rose behind him. Though Fact Finding would not keep his spotless record intact that afternoon, another contender did.
McCraken, a three-time winner at Churchill Downs last year, reasserted his status as a top Kentucky Derby contender. Despite being off since November 26, he showed little sign of rust. He rallied for a measured 1½-length victory over Tapwrit and pacesetter State of Honor. In the winner’s circle, McCraken got love pats from grateful connections in awe of their star sophomore.
In Saturday’s Endeavour Stakes (G3), a turf route for fillies and mares, Isabella Sings showed off her signature tactic: enthusiastically motoring on the front end and playing catch-me-if-you-can. Light In Paris looked to threaten the runaway pacesetter on the turn, but Isabella Sings had even more in reserve. She drew away again to cross the wire three comfortable lengths in front. As the sun began to fade, Isabella Sings strolled into a place that just eluded her last year in the Hillsborough Stakes (G2) – the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle.
However, it does not have to be a big race day for it to be a fun one. I spent four days in Tampa, and visited the track each day. Each morning, I got there early enough to take in some morning workouts. Afternoons at the racetrack have the thrill of competition, but the morning brings a welcome change of pace, the less regimented beauty of horses stretching their legs in the sunlight.
In the afternoons, even on days without stakes racing, the track is lively. A mix of horseplayers, families, and groups of friends fill the apron to enjoy the horses and the warm Florida weather. Even though I don’t live in Tampa, the track feels cozy and familiar. At no other racetrack I’ve visited are people so open to chat racing with strangers in the paddock or at the rail.
Friday, I missed a perfect opportunity for a hunch bet. As the horses made their procession up the turf chute before the 7th, I peeped back at my program and noticed a Glen Hill Farm homebred named Chicago Style. As I live in Chicago, I considered putting $2 on his nose because of his name…but passed since I would go broke if I bet every fun name I saw. Perhaps he wanted to make my visit memorable; perhaps fate just wanted to tease me. Chicago Style tracked midpack, launched a sharp outside rally through the far turn, and skipped home three lengths clear at the wire.
In addition to the on-track action, Tampa Bay Downs also keeps visitors informed and engaged before and between the races.
At 10 a.m. on Saturdays they host Morning Glory Club: doughnuts, coffee, morning works, and equine insights. By the time I got to the correct corner of the grandstand for Morning Glory Club it was standing room only. Still, it was well worth being on my feet to enjoy the eclectic conversation between track announcer Richard Grunder and his guest, trainer Gerald Aschinger. They discussed topics ranging from the reasons for using shadow rolls to the differences in conformation between an ideal racehorse and an ideal polo horse.
Sunday afternoon was Family Day. Kids made chalk drawings of horses and giraffes on the concrete while moms and dads tried to beat (or eat) chalk at the windows. Future jockeys rode ponies under a lush shade tree. Best of all, Tampa Bay Downs trotted out my favorite mascot in horse racing: eleven-year-old miniature horse Mouse. Decked out in bows and heart-shaped sunglasses for Valentine’s Day, Mouse calmly munched on the grass while fans of all ages marveled at how a horse could be so tiny.
Between the competitive racing, the verdant track, the entertaining events, and the welcoming railbirds, there’s something at Tampa Bay Downs for everyone. It may become your new winter tradition, too.
Nicolle loves horse racing but especially loves Illinois racing, Curlin babies, and cute noses; follow her on Twitter @RogueClown