I admit, my knowledge of horse racing is probably greener than the turf track at Tampa Bay Downs, but I finally had a reason to visit this gem in a community I've called home for 22 years.
Whether you're interested in transforming from novice to parimutuel expert, or just a fun-seeker wanting to enjoy a sunny Florida day, the track is an inviting lure and one that locals shouldn't bypass.
I finally made it to the Downs because of my father, Dan. He made a special trip from his Ohio home so we could watch Balino, a 3-year-old colt, in the eighth race on Dec. 4. It was the resumption of the track's 88th season of thoroughbred racing that officially began July 1.
We joined 3,025 horse enthusiasts for the day and met up with family friends from Ocala, Joe and Vivi Serena, who own Balino.
With nine races, 90 horses, 62 trainers and 39 jockeys at center stage, we had time to explore. We started with lunch in the third floor Skye Terrace Dining Room, which provides a panoramic view of the finish line and winner's circle.
Tampa Downs has reinvested some of its new returns in the form of fresh paint and a renovated backside kitchen, to a new bar called Riders Up! Pub and an expanded food menu at the Metro Deli.
Larger purses and competitive winter racing also have drawn horsemen from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and from as far north as Canada.
"We have a lot of jockeys this year," Tampa Bay Downs spokesman Mike Henry said. "There are new faces here just trying to get noticed by trainers."
You can get a glimpse of them around the paddock, where trainers saddle the horses and jockeys return at the end of races with dirt-filled faces, sans the area around their goggled eyes. The smell and feel of rubber mulch that outlines the walking ring is an indicator to horses that their race is moments away.
That's where we see Balino, in the first stall, donning No. 1 to designate his post position on the inside rail. He looks feisty and a tad smaller, yet sleeker, than most of the other seven horses in the 1-mile turf race.
Jockey Quincy Hamilton is supposed to wear Balino's Florida Gator color silks, but the orange and blue didn't make the anticipated overnight shipment from Miami. So trainer Joseph Arboritanza threw yellow silks on the jockey instead.
In the smoke-filled grandstand, the sound of the bugle calling the horses to post made Joe Serena visibly nervous about his unpredictable horse.
"I'm shaking," he said.
I was, too, and I had only $10 on the race. Still, it was a far cry from the last time I "wagered" on a live horse race — on a cruise to the Bahamas with my dad and siblings in 1988 where we got to "bet" on wooden horses as part of the onboard entertainment.
Just minutes after 4 p.m. the gates opened and Balino broke to an early lead, holding true to his reputation as a front-runner. He opened a commanding lead as large as five lengths and he whizzed past us at more than 35 miles per hour.
Balino held the lead until the final turn, and once he saw that he had company on the track, he pinned his ears back and faded to a seventh-place finish.
"The other horses came to him and he was done," Arboritanza said after the race.
Though we didn't find the result we had hoped for, we did discover what a day at the Downs is all about. Horse racing has returned to Tampa and I will be back as well.