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JOCKEYING FOR YOUR ATTENTION // Tampa Bay Downs offers ambiance with its races

Nestled on the border of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, only a few miles from the clatter of U.S. 19 and the bustle of Tampa, you can find a picturesque pari-mutuel landmark. Welcome to Tampa Bay Downs, the only thoroughbred oval track on the West Coast of Florida and a popular winter-spring attraction. Its stables can accommodate more than 1,400 horses, and more than 250 jockeys and 400 trainers work the season here. Female jockeys have found Tampa Bay Downs a rich circuit for training and winning. One in six jockeys riding each season is female, and the world's foremost woman jockey, Julie Krone, rode her first race and later her first winner at Tampa Bay Downs, in 1980.

Each season, new touches are added. This year, one such addition is an offer of a $1-million bonus to any horse that wins three key Kentucky Derby prep races at the track and then goes on to win the Derby itself.

For people wanting to place a bet, there are new automatic video teller machines scattered around the track to complement the standard pari-mutuel windows.

Those who take their betting seriously can enjoy another new park perk - a Sports Gallery, on the first floor of the clubhouse, featuring a video racing library that allows patrons (for an extra $2 admission) to view videotape on a big-screen TV of any previous race of the season in progress.

Tampa Bay Downs is more of a family affair these days, too. New state laws allow children at race tracks, so it's not uncommon to see Mom, Dad and kids crowded around the paddock or stretched out on the blue-and-white benches scattered in the sunlight.

Crowds vary with the day of the week. Sunday is family day, explains Graham Ross, director of Downs public relations; Saturday is for hard-core race-goers.

Ross came to the track first in 1975 and was named director of public relations in 1985. "It's a very good track to train a young horse on," he says. "It's a very deep track and a safe track."

The track itself has a loam and sand construction, providing a cushion for young hooves. "It'd be like Carl Lewis training on Clearwater Beach," he says, "and then racing on a cinder track."

For first-time race-goers, and for the curious, the Downs offers a weekly Morning Glory Club Show, a gathering open to the public free each Saturday. At the show, Ross trots out trainers and vets, jockeys and blacksmiths, and lets them answer questions about horses and horse racing.

And if your appetite gets the best of you, food varies from snack counters right next to the betting windows to a swanky restaurant, the Sky Terrace Dining Room, where jackets are required and white tablecloths abound.

Originally opened in 1926, the race track officially counts its birth in 1947 as Sunshine Park. As the track changed owners, it changed names. In 1965 it was Florida Downs, and became Tampa Bay Downs in 1980 when George Steinbrenner took over.

Steinbrenner's corporation sold the track several years ago to current owner Stella F. Thayer.

And after all these decades, the little Oldsmar oval is still running strong.

AT A GLANCE Tampa Bay Downs, State Road 580 and Race Track Road, Oldsmar. Open daily except Tuesdays; gates open at 11:30 a.m.; races start at 1 p.m. Dec. 8-April 8. Closed March 19 and 26 and April 2. General admission $1.50; clubhouse $3. Parking $1; valet parking $2. For details: (813) 441-9701.