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DiMaggio. The Babe. Brad Pitt. Derby Lane greyhound track hosted them all.

Greyhound racing, held since 1925, is banned after this weekend. But memories of the famed sports figures and celebrities who visited the track will live on.
Babe Ruth, center, holding the winning greyhound, Racing Ramp, at St. Petersburg's Derby Lane in 1925, the year it opened.
Babe Ruth, center, holding the winning greyhound, Racing Ramp, at St. Petersburg's Derby Lane in 1925, the year it opened. [ Derby Lane ]
Published Dec. 24, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — There are the names.

Babe Ruth and Brad Pitt were here. So were Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe (if you count the valet drive). Mickey Mantle. George Clooney. Lou Gehrig. Jim Thorpe. Pete Rose. Carl Reiner. Stan Musial. Sophie Tucker.

A holy trinity of baseball philosophers: Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer. Military brass. Politicians. Entertainers. Business leaders and mob bosses. Sportswriters, under the guise of research. Players, coaches, managers, team execs during all seasons, but especially spring training.

The constitutionally-amended ban on greyhound racing in Florida that goes into effect Jan. 1 will signal the end of an era at historic Derby Lane, where dogs have chased the lure around the track since 1925.

The final dog racing cards are this weekend: afternoon and evening races Saturday, then a grand finale Sunday matinee. Part of the famed facility will still be in business come Monday, for poker playing and simulcast betting on dog and horse races elsewhere, but it won’t be the same.

A neon sign installed for the filming of the film, Ocean's Eleven, is pictured at Derby Lane during the final week of dog racing.
A neon sign installed for the filming of the film, Ocean's Eleven, is pictured at Derby Lane during the final week of dog racing. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We’ll be open, but it will be weird not having racing,” said CEO Richard Winning, whose family has run the track since the start. “After 95 years of racing, and going into our 96th, it’s going to be really weird.

“We’ve done the seasonal (racing schedules) and the six month and the year round. But now what do you do? It’s just not there. It’s going to be really strange.”

The dogs are the stars of the show, and there was none bigger over the years than Keefer, who was such an attraction during a 1986 run that crowds for his races topped 12,000 and the Wall Street Journal did a front page story about him.

But the celebrity watching could be pretty good.

Some were there to work, of course, such as Pitt, Clooney and Reiner filming scenes for the 2001 hit movie Ocean’s Eleven. Same with Bryan Cranston and the 2015 film The Infiltrator. And Daniel Stern and a pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey in the 1990 movie Coupe de Ville.

The scene in the parking lot of Derby Lane before a scene in Ocean's Eleven was shot there.
The scene in the parking lot of Derby Lane before a scene in Ocean's Eleven was shot there. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2001) ]

But most came to play, wagering a few bucks or high rolling, enjoying the fresh air or the once-famous dinner buffet, spending a night out before there was much other nightlife in the Tampa Bay area.

“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years, just a ton of fun with celebrities and people coming and going,” Winning said. “We’ve had so many come through the doors. It was so normal for us during the season; they were all wandering around the clubhouse playing.”

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• • •

There are the stories.

• DiMaggio was retired as a player but working as a Yankees spring instructor when he and his former wife made a quick but memorable stop at the track, likely during their March 1961 weeklong stay at the Tides Hotel & Bath Club on North Redington Beach.

“They pulled up, Joe left Marilyn in the car with the valet boys and ran in to make a bet,” Winning said. “So she was sitting in the car with the valet boys.” How’d DiMaggio do? Winning didn’t recall. “He won anyway, that’s for sure.”

Jim Thorpe talks with a track official during a break in a 1926 football exhibition in a photo on display at Derby Lane during the final week of racing.
Jim Thorpe talks with a track official during a break in a 1926 football exhibition in a photo on display at Derby Lane during the final week of racing. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]

• Thorpe had won Olympic gold in 1912, played six seasons of baseball in the majors and moved on in 1920 to pro football. Which is how he ended up playing in a January 1926 football exhibition on the Derby Lane infield. Captaining the St. Petersburg team against Winter Haven, Thorpe, per the Associated Press report, “at times flashed the brilliancy of his youth,” but “the game was as listless as the crowd” of fewer than 300.

• Zimmer and his wife, Soot, had long made their offseason home in the St. Petersburg area, so he was a frequent visitor to Derby Lane. “The unofficial mayor of track,” Winning said. “You couldn’t mention the track without Zimmer.” Whether in the spring with baseball buddies such as Joe Torre, Jim Leyland and/or Lou Piniella, or in the offseason with his local pals, Zimmer could usually be found there.

“I watched him in the World Series one year (as a Yankees coach) and they showed him sitting there in New York,” Winning said. “And the next morning he was here playing the dogs. I said ‘What the heck?’ He said, ‘I caught the flight home and Soot picked me up and brought me right here and left me.’ Typical Zimmer.”

• One of the scenes from Ocean’s Eleven filmed at Derby Lane was in the parking lot, where Clooney and Pitt were in a tent watching an acrobat show (and an accident led to a delay in the shooting) then headed to their car, which for movie purposes was in California. The other was in the track stands, where Pitt approached Reiner as he is watching the races to invite him to re-join his band of thieves. The star power of the movie created a bit of a stir and work for 500 or so locals as extras. There’s no prominent photos of the filming around the track, but a clear reminder: To dress up the betting windows, the movie folks ordered and paid for the blue neon sign with dogs running on either side of the words DERBY LANE, and it still is mounted there.

A pair of photographs featuring Mickey Mantle shooting a cigarette commercial at the dog track, hang inside CEO Richard Winning's office, at Derby Lane.
A pair of photographs featuring Mickey Mantle shooting a cigarette commercial at the dog track, hang inside CEO Richard Winning's office, at Derby Lane. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

• Mantle was just starting his career with the Yankees in the early 1950s when he was approached to shoot a TV commercial for cigarettes during spring training at Derby Lane. One slight issue. “He said he never smoked,” Winning said. “It was his one and only cigarette commercial.”

• Winning can go on, of course. About how his grandfather would play golf frequently with Ruth, as their group would walk on unannounced to area courses without being members because “you show up with Babe Ruth and everything opens up.” About how they used wagons pulled by mules to bring in patrons when there were war-time gas restrictions, how they once had monkeys ride on the dogs, how members of a circus band played at the track when not on tour.

About Rose usually showing up with an entourage, Dave Parker winning big with a $12,000 superfecta bet, Christy Mathewson presenting the trophy after a stakes race, the Ripkens coming for a family dinner, how many Mets, Cardinals, Reds, Phillies and others came through the gate.

•••

There are the questions.

Through wars, economic crises, regulatory changes, animal rights advocacy, a pandemic shutdown and myriad other issues since the Jan. 3, 1925 initial race, the dogs kept running at Derby Lane.

Come late Sunday afternoon, after the band plays like in the old days and track employees give out the souvenir hats and two free beers a person, no one really knows what’s next.

Winning said they plan to keep the poker room and simulcast betting areas open in the smaller clubhouse building, but work will start on shutting down the main grandstand and upper-level box seat areas, and cleaning up the track and infield areas to look more like a park.

The club features large windows for patrons to watch the races while dining.
The club features large windows for patrons to watch the races while dining. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Layoffs will begin immediately for 50-plus workers, some long-timers, with more to follow. Dogs will be shipped back to their owners’ farms, sent to the other tracks where there is still racing or adopted.

Related: Greyhound racing in Florida ends next week, but what will happen to the dogs?

In five years? In 10? With racing banned (and, Winning admits, dying out anyway amid growing opposition) and casino gambling not expanding due to another constitutional amendment, legalized sports betting could be the track’s next best option. They could add a sports book to the poker and simulcast business.

Eventually, Winning said they will look to sell most of the 130 acres of prime land along Gandy Boulevard to be developed, or maybe partner on a project.

A new, smaller building could handle whatever betting business they have, so there will be plenty of room for something new. Because the track is located near the water in a designated Coastal High Hazard Area, studies have to be done to determine the allowable type and density of development. Residents in the adjacent neighborhoods also may have a say.

Photographs of the dog track's history are displayed large inside the club.
Photographs of the dog track's history are displayed large inside the club. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

There have been rumors of a potential Rays stadium site, which Winning said would work but seems unlikely: “I think the Rays want to be in Montreal.” Also, of a new Amazon distribution center, since the company currently leases much of the parking lot to stage delivery trucks: “Everybody asks me about that, and I always go, ‘No, we haven’t (made a deal).’”

Winning acknowledged Monday that he really doesn’t know what will be next. He often has joked they could set up the world’s largest putting green. He heard the Palm Beach track may convert to drone racing. He figures “you could do all sorts of crazy things out here” and expects to hear plenty of suggestions.

“We’re going to move forward, we’re going to be open again on Monday,” he said. “Where we go from there, where our future really takes us, we don’t know. We really don’t know. We won’t be doing the same thing we’re doing today, that’s for sure.”

A family gathers on a bench to watch some of the final dog races at historic Derby Lane.
A family gathers on a bench to watch some of the final dog races at historic Derby Lane. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]