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Turf puts Tampa Bay Downs on track

Turf's up at Tampa Bay Downs. Well, at least it is this weekend as the 72-year-old track inaugurates its new grass race course.

Calling the establishment of the 1 1/16-mile track "another move forward for Tampa Bay Downs," track superintendent Bob Cassanese said the turf course "sends a signal of how we feel about thoroughbred racing."

Located on the inside perimeter of the dirt track, the turf course not only brings to fruition a dream of Tampa Bay Downs owner Stella Thayer, it also brings Tampa Bay Downs up to speed with many other major tracks around the country, said Margo Flynn, track spokeswoman.

"It all came together right," Flynn said.

Today, the last day of the racing season at Tampa Bay Downs, horses will run the new course, giving track officials a chance to see how it holds up and what changes need to be made before the next season starts in December.

"There's a lot of homework left to do," Cassanese said. But "we'll have an extensive program next season."

In addition to providing horses bred for turf racing a place to run, the new track also gives "handicappers, patrons and horsemen a chance to try different things with the horses," Flynn said.

Workers broke ground on the course last May and sprigged it with Bermuda grass in September. While grass might seem too fragile for horse racing, if the horses "tear it up you have the ability to move the rail to allow grass to heal in one location while you use another," Cassanese said.

Until 50 years ago, turf racing was almost non-existent in the United States. But horse racing entered a new era when the Washington International was held on turf at Maryland's Laurel Race Course in 1952.The following year the Atlantic City Race Course held its inaugural United Nations handicap on turf.

"Tampa Bay Downs plans to be part of that new era," Flynn said.

If you have a story about Odessa, call Jackie Ripley at 226-3468.

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