Most influential women in Tampa Bay sports: Stella Thayer, Tampa Bay Downs

Stella Thayer
Stella Thayer
Published July 10, 2016

Tampa Bay Downs has always played a pivotal role for women in a male-dominated industry.

In 1981, Julie Krone, then an apprentice jockey, won her first race at the Oldsmar track. She finished her career with 3,704 victories — the most of any female jockey — and was the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

But the most influential woman at Tampa Bay Downs has been Stella Thayer, who has been involved with the track for more than 50 years.

Her love of horses began much earlier. She started riding when she was 5. Her father, Chester Ferguson, was part of an ownership group that acquired Tampa Bay Downs in 1965 (it was then called Florida Downs and Turf Club).

When Thayer purchased the track for $16.5 million in 1986, she outbid former New York Yankees owner and Tampa icon George Steinbrenner.

Soon after, Thayer named controller Lorraine M. King as Tampa Bay Downs' general manager. It marked the first time in turf history a thoroughbred track had separate female ownership and management.

Thayer has been a pioneer for bay area women in the business world, too. She was the first woman to preside over the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and has served on a number of boards.