Fans of win, place and show will have plenty to cheer about Saturday when Tampa Bay Downs hosts Festival Day, its biggest race day of the year. • Serious bettors need no introduction. The decades-old track has a solid reputation in the racing world, and attracts some of the country's top thoroughbred horses and jockeys every season. • But to those still trying to distinguish an exacta from a trifecta, the track can be a strange place. • Fear not. The Oldsmar track has something for everyone and doesn't have to cost a lot. Horses hit the track Wednesdays through Sundays. Here's an inside guide to get you started.
The main draw is the Tampa Bay Derby, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby (which is held the first Saturday in May). The 1 1/16-mile local race for 3-year-olds offers a mega $300,000 purse, with the winner taking home $180,000. Festival Day has 13 races, four of them stakes races. Three-year-old fillies (the girls) will compete in the $175,000 Florida Oaks. In all, about $700,000 in prize money is up for grabs. About 12,000 people are expected to attend.
The only thoroughbred racetrack on Florida's west coast opened in 1926 and is one of the most wagered tracks in the country. Owned by Stella Thayer and her brother Howell Ferguson, it has live racing mid December through early May and simulcast racing on live race days and during the off-season. The main track is 1 mile around, with a 7/8-mile grass course, which was added in 1998. The 30-table Silks Poker Room in the grandstand is open year-round from 12:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily. Players can get tableside massages for $1 a minute.
Winning track record
The Downs churns out champs. Three years ago, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, Street Sense, went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Last year, the local winner, Musket Man, placed third among the Kentucky Derby's field of 20 horses, five of which raced at the Downs during the season. So if you want a taste of the big Derby without catching a plane to the Bluegrass State, head to Oldsmar.
Betting isn't free, but getting into the track can be. The big tent on the north side, known as the backyard, is free and allows coolers. No bottles, please. Designed for families, it has picnic tables, betting tellers, TVs and food from Brady's Backyard BBQ in Safety Harbor. From the grassy picnic area next to the track, fans can feel the pounding of hooves in the homestretch. On weekends, young fans can visit with Mouse, the track's new mascot, a 3-year-old miniature horse rescued by the Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, a nonprofit group that adopts and rehabilitates retired racehorses. Rotarians have reserved the tent for Festival Day, but the grassy area is available.
The grandstand is free on weekdays but $2 per person on weekends. The Legends Bar, decorated with Seabiscuit memorabilia from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has two-for-one drinks from 5 to 7 p.m. on live racing days. The Trackside Deli has daily $5 sandwich, drink and chip specials.
Parking at the track is always free but can be difficult to find by mid afternoon. Valet costs $5.
Best viewing spots
There's no shortage, so pick one or go exploring.
The apron: This open area is in front of the grandstand close to the finish line and the paddock, where the horses saddle up. It's the loudest cheering section in the track and abuts the winner's circle, where the top horse and jockey pose for photos after each race. On Festival Day, you might get lucky enough to catch a wreath flower thrown by a winning jockey.
Skye Terrace restaurant: For a more relaxing, upscale setting, try this restaurant on the third floor of the clubhouse. The window seats provide panoramic views of the track, tote board and center pond, where a huge alligator often suns itself on warm days. Take note of the dress code: collared shirts and no shorts. Reservations are recommended, but good luck getting one on Festival Day. Near the entrance, check out the display case of commemorative mint julep glasses from past Kentucky Derbys. The Sunday brunch is $27.95.
Stella Artois Garden Suite: The beer-loving crowd might prefer this bar near the clubhouse entrance. Perched above a corner turn of the track, the bar offers a view of horses galloping toward you on the homestretch. Patio tables and chairs on the deck give the suite a beach bar atmosphere. The $7.50 admission includes a program.
Winning horse owners in the track's 26 season stakes races receive a trophy from Tiffany & Co. — with its coveted blue box. We're talking crystal vases, silver plates and bowls, not Little League trophies.
On Festival Day, the winning horses in the Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Oaks races get a flowered wreath. The owner of the Derby horse receives a bronze statue of horses in full stride. The statue weighs more than 150 pounds and is the last in a three-piece set made for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Tampa Bay Derbys. Eric Fein won the last two and hopes to complete the collection Saturday with his horse, Schoolyard Dreams.
Brushes with fame
Oldsmar is the home track of Rosemary "Rosie" Homeister Jr., thoroughbred racing's second all-time leading female rider. A favorite at Tampa Bay Downs, she won the $150,000 Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup last month and rode in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.
Also of note is Julie Krone, the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race (the Belmont). Her life is the subject of a film, Freak, scheduled to start shooting this year. Now retired, Krone won her first race at the Downs.