Ten . . . nine . . . eight. The clock was fast approaching 12:30 p.m. and Ed Smith Jr. had a decision to make. He could stay at home in Clearwater and watch his favorite professional football team, Miami, or he could go to Derby Lane for the opening of the 74th season.
"There were eight seconds left until kickoff and I didn't know what to do," Smith said. "It was a tough choice."
It wasn't much of a hardship. Really. Smith was able to do both. He did without the matinee races in order to watch the Dolphins, who won their opening-round playoff game. Then he headed to the dog track.
"I really thought Miami was going to lose," said Smith, who has attended Opening Day for more than a decade. "That's what made it tough. But they won, so it's been a lucky day for me so far."
Although the afternoon races coincided with NFL playoff games, that didn't do much to deter others. The attendance for the matinee was 5,307 and the on-track handle was $692,960.
In the Puppy Preview, the 10th race of the matinee, Zone Defense came out of the No. 2 post to win. The race was tight early as On the Mark, who held the No. 1 post, took a big lead. But Zone Defense surged and won in 31.00, the fastest finish of the matinee races. The payoff was $11.80, $4.60 and $3.80.
It was a banner day for Derby Lane. The championship game for college football has fallen on the same day as the opening events in recent years and bad weather played a factor in low attendance last year. But this year, Opening Day came on a weekend and had matinee races, the first time that has happened in six years. Also, admission and programs were free. All of it factored in for a big day. The purse figured to exceed $1-million.
Still, football fans had to make a choice. Jeff Brown of Lakeland, an avid Gators fan, missed the Orange Bowl and attended opening night for the first time in eight years.
"It was a hard thing to do," Brown said. "I usually watch Florida whenever they're in a bowl game. But it was opening night and it was free. This is definitely an exception. I've got a feeling the Gators are going to win, but I'm going to try to sneak a peek somewhere. That's something I have to do."
Heavy rain and frequent lightning, which started around the ninth race, made for adverse conditions during the 74th St. Petersburg Inaugural. Carjack, running out of the No. 3 post, got enough footing on the wet track to grab an early lead on the first turn and win in 31.20. Carjack, who broke in as a puppy and won the Fans' All-Star race last season, was a favorite for the inaugural at 9-5 odds. The payoff was $5.60, $2.80 and $2.80.