ST. PETERSBURG — Oscar Prado is one of the old-timers, going back to when his father would bring him to Derby Lane. Now, at age 70, he makes regular visits from his Tampa home to play cards and bet on the dogs.
So with Wednesday’s opening of the fabled track marking the return of live professional sports — with fans — to the Tampa Bay area, he obviously had to be there.
“I love it,” Prado said. “It’s so nice to be back."
As usual, Prado first dabbled a bit in the adjacent poker room, which opened at 10 a.m., losing and winning a bit until it was time for the first race which — for the historians documenting the Days of the Coronavirus — started at 12:31 p.m. and lasted 31.04 seconds, Oshkosh Wendy leading the whole way and paying a solid $10.60 to win.
In what already is an odd year at Derby Lane given the Dec. 31 state-legislated end of greyhound racing, Wednesday marked a return to normal operations, with some requisite changes.
Temperature readings were taken at the entrance. Plastic sheeting hung at the top of the betting and concessions windows. Staff wore masks and gloves, except in a few specific cases. Social distancing adjustments were made throughout, with signage —and occasionally security personnel — offering reminders.
“I got nothing but compliments all day just for being open again and I didn’t hear of any problems at all," Derby Lane CEO Richard Winning said. “It was good to have the employees working and to have the dogs running in front of a live audience."
And, just as during the previous 94 years, to the joy of a few with the winning ticket and the angst of most others.
“We’re just glad this is open," said Susan Hendess, sitting with husband Paul, who explained his “system” for placing winning bets “isn’t much of a system" beyond cribbing out of the $1.25 program.
About 20 people were lined up when the main entrance opened at 11:30 a.m., and when the first of 15 races started an hour later, several hundred were spread out, mostly on the lower outdoor level where masks were optional. Others went up to regular spots in the club and simulcast betting areas, where masks were required. Nothing like the heyday for the track, which can hold 13,000, but a good day nonetheless, Winning said.
Most of the customers at the track seemed comfortable with the precautions being taken.
Justin Georgia, a local with 4-year-old son Maddox in tow, makes occasional visits. The Staszaks, a Michigan family of mom, dad and three kids, were looking for something to do with a little less exposure to the sun after having obviously spent Tuesday at the beach.
“I was a little bit apprehensive,” said Jim Hawkins, a 75-year-old retired sports writer who first visited Derby Lane in 1970, moved full time to the area in 2011 and now makes several visits a week. “I didn’t know quite what to expect. They’re trying very hard with what they’re doing.”
Hawkins — telling stories of seeing Pete Rose, Jim Leyland, Don Zimmer and other baseball personalities regularly at the track over the years — said he saw most but not all of his usual week-day group in the simulcast room, where you can also bet on racing at other dog tracks and the fan-less horse races at Tampa Bay Downs.
“A few said they weren’t ready yet,” Hawkins said through his mask. “I feel comfortable. I didn’t retire to spend the rest of my life watching Netflix.”
The poker room appeared to be filled with regulars, based on the warm greetings between players and also with the dealers. (Though not all were necessarily keen to have their photos taken or talk with a reporter.)
The pandemic-related changes are a bit more obvious there, with masks required and capacity reduced by using only half of the 52 tables, cutting seating at each from 10 to six.
There were enough customers to initially fill four tables in the room, open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and 12-13 were in use by mid-afternoon. Players and dealers wore masks, though all but a few skipped the gloves, obviously okay with touching the chips and cards, reminded regularly to make use of the bottle of hand sanitizer on the table that was passed around to mark who had the bet.
Prado, who said he has battled cancer and had heart and colon surgery, was fine with the situation, saying there are only so many precautions.
“Just like we’re gambling it out here, it’s a gamble you take," he said.
For now, Derby Lane — running Monday-Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and adding a Saturday night card May 30 — is the only game in town for fans. The Lightning, Rays and Rowdies remain idle (except for some light workouts) and Tampa Bay Downs, which typically closes in May, will continue to run without fans through June, with an extension from the state to hold races on Mondays and Wednesdays, leading into its Summer Festival of Racing June 30 and July 1.
“It was a nice crowd and they seemed to be real happy and glad to be back and able to get out of their house," Winning said. “It was a good day.”