MIAMI - Once a humble, low-level track, Tampa Bay Downs now regularly makes important racing news. On Saturday trainer Todd Pletcher's undefeated colt Brethren runs in the $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Next month, Uncle Mo, the brilliant champion of his generation, starts his preparation for the 3-year-old classics in the Tampa Bay Derby, a race that has produced two of the past four Kentucky Derby winners.
Yet no racing day this season could be much more significant than the routine card of Dec. 29. These were the respective wagering totals on that date at Tampa and at one of the nation's legendary tracks:
Tampa Bay Downs $4,230,056
Santa Anita $4,038,175
A few years ago it would have been unimaginable that Tampa could handle more money than mighty Santa Anita. The numbers underscore Tampa astonishing success in the simulcasting marketplace. Tampa regularly beats high-level competitors such as Oaklawn Park and the Fairgrounds. Buoyed by greater exposure in California and on the TVG network, its wagering totals are up five percent this year, to $4.28 million a day, at a time when most tracks' business is in decline.
Tampa's visibility has been boosted by the growing importance of the Tampa Bay Derby and other stakes. Its prestige has been enhanced, too, by the fact that its turf course lures horses from high-class stables at Gulfstream Park, such as those of Bill Mott and Christophe Clement. But many of Tampa's races are cheap claiming events, and bettors relish them, too, because the fields are large and competitive and the payoffs frequently astronomical.
Other tracks run low-level claimers with large fields, too, but General Manager Peter Berube thinks Tampa is uniquely popular because it doesn't card races limited to state-breds (which tend to draw the same old cast of characters) and it attracts stables from tracks throughout the East.
"Bettors find our races a challenge, and they can find a lot of value in them," Berube said.
I love the everyday racing for these reasons, and I devote more effort to betting at Tampa than any other track in the U.S. Nowhere else does a studious handicapper have a better chance to unearth long-priced horses with a plausible chance to win. At the same time I am distressed by some of the track's shortcomings, and I worry that they could undermine its great success story.
One development this winter would be a disgrace if it occurred at a rinky-dink track, let alone an operation doing $4.28 million a day in business. Since Jan. 22 the electric timer - the source of the most vital information for handicappers - has been malfunctioning frequently. Impossible times go up on the tote board and then are erased, and a clocker's hand-timed numbers, which may not be accurate, are eventually substituted.
"I'm embarrassed about it," Berube said. He explained that the Teleview Racing Patrol, which is responsible for the timer, switched to a different system this year; in the wake of the misfires, they rewired the system last week, but the errors didn't end.
In Sunday's first race, the timer showed maidens running the first quarter of a route race in a fantastic 21.52 (the result of birds flying into electronic beam, Berube said.) In the eighth race, no final time whatsoever was posted. Berube hopes the system is now fixed, and it needs to be. If handicappers can't have confidence in the published data on Tampa's races, all of the track's virtues will hardly matter.
Tampa's other serious shortcoming is the quality of its simulcast presentation, a vital part of its product because most bettors watch its races on TV. Little thought has evidently gone into the display of racing information on the screen. The video coverage of races - especially the head-on shots - strikes me as substandard, too hazy to distinguish the horses' saddle-cloth numbers or the colors of their silks, though Berube insisted, "We have upgraded our equipment each year."
Watching races isn't helped by the cluster of trees that obscure the start of all 61/2- and 7-furlong sprints. (Sorry, tree huggers, but they need to go.) Nor is following the action helped by the race calls of Richard Grunder, the track's announcer. Grunder makes countless mistakes, but ever more maddening than his race-calling errors are his daily assaults on the English language.
In race after race he mispronounces words and proper names that ought to be in the vocabulary of the average 10th-grader. He has even managed to mispronounce the names of the horses Deny and Awe ("Denny" and "Ah-wee.") When a horse fell in the stretch run of a race a week ago, Grunder called, "Sunday Delight has went down!"
Is this really the way a business wants to project its image to a national audience?
The prosperity of Tampa Bay Downs depends largely on horseplayers around the country who bet at simulcast parlors or at home; most of them have no special allegiance to any track, and they won't hesitate to desert a weak product in search of one more attractive.
In its humble past Tampa's imperfections may have been understandable and forgivable. But now that the track is playing in the same league with competitors such as Santa Anita, Oaklawn and the Fairgrounds, it has to put on a thoroughly major-league product.