Wednesday, November 18, 2020
OLDSMAR - The most frequent question Tampa Bay Downs officials have received the past several weeks is: “Are you guys going to allow fans to come watch the races?”
In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, customer health and safety are the track’s foremost concerns. Tampa Bay Downs, which has allowed on-track simulcast wagering since July 2 and Silks Poker Room play since mid-June, has formulated plans to permit spectators for its 2020-2021 meeting, beginning with the opening-day racing card on Nov. 25.
The 90-day meeting runs through May 2, followed by the annual Summer Festival of Racing on June 30 and July 1. Tampa Bay Downs will race most Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, adding Sundays starting Dec. 20 and also racing Thursday, Dec. 24.
For the foreseeable future, fans will be required to wear masks both inside and outside the facility, unless they are eating or drinking.
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Various measures have been established to ensure social distancing, including:
· The creation of more outdoor, private spaces for small groups
· A limited number of benches on the apron of the grandstand, with increased spacing
· Computer-generated, socially distanced grandstand seating
· A reduction in box seating, from eight to six seats per box
Those changes, and many others, are designed to provide patrons with a high level of comfort and security when they arrive for an afternoon of racing during the track’s 95th anniversary season.
Tampa Bay Downs has developed a website for fans to reserve seating that provides social distancing. The cost is $5 per seat and must be paid in advance. To purchase seats through the website, go to www.tbdseats.com.
The track raced without spectators last season from March 17 through the annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing, generating income and purses for horsemen and horsewomen through account wagering.
Peter Berube, the track’s Vice President-General Manager, expressed optimism that a shared sense of responsibility and respect among track employees, horsemen, jockeys and fans will enable spectators to attend all season.
“We understand that many of our patrons would like to see a return to pre-Coronavirus status, while many others are concerned about venturing outside their homes while the pandemic continues to pose a threat,” Berube said. “We believe it is important to listen to and respect all viewpoints, but our biggest duty is doing everything possible to keep our customers and employees healthy. Without fans at the track, racing loses some of its excitement and charm, and our on-track business suffers.”
Tampa Bay Downs has also implemented rules to protect jockeys. Riders, jockey room staff, starting gate personnel, etc., will undergo rapid COVID testing prior to their arrival, with twice-weekly testing from there on. No newcomers will be allowed without a negative test, and jockeys will be restricted to their designated areas on race days and required to leave the room following their last ride of the day.
Other elements of the track’s COVID-19 protocol include increasing the number of hand-sanitizing stations throughout the facility; ongoing cleaning and sterilizing of high-touch surfaces and areas; socially distanced markers on the floors; providing disinfecting wipes next to wagering machines, replay TVs and high-touch machines; and installing Plexiglas partitions between employees and customers at the Customer Service desk, program windows, concession stands and Gift Shop.
The stakes schedule, which begins with the Dec. 5 Cotillion Festival Day card, remains virtually the same as last season. The 41st annual Gr. II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, a showcase for Triple Crown prospects, will be held March 6 as part of an outstanding Festival Day of racing program, featuring four graded races and total stakes purse money of $1 million.
Other major race days include Festival Preview Day on Feb. 6, highlighted by the Gr. III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds; Florida Cup Day on March 28, featuring six $110,000 stakes races for registered Florida-breds; and Kentucky Derby Day on May 1.
Nine of last season’s top 10 jockeys have returned for the 2020-2021 meeting. Daniel Centeno and Antonio Gallardo, who have amassed a combined 11 Oldsmar riding championships, are approaching major career milestones at the outset of the meeting. Centeno, who has won a record six Tampa Bay Downs titles, has ridden 2,987 North American winners (to go with 847 in his native Venezuela).
Gallardo, a five-time track champion and last year’s leading jockey with 122 winners, has 1,955 victories in North America.
Samy Camacho, who won the 2020 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on King Guillermo, is also expected to contend for the top spot in this year’s standings. Other top returning jockeys include Pablo Morales, who rode career winner No. 2,000 here last season; four-time Oldsmar track champion Ronnie Allen Jr.; two-time champion Jesus Castanon; and veterans Jose Ferrer, Willie Martinez and Scott Spieth.
The Tampa Bay Downs trainers roster also features nine of the top 10 finishers in last season’s standings, headed by defending champion Gerald Bennett, who has won the last five Oldsmar training titles and six overall. Bennett, who saddled 61 winners last season, has 3,920 winners in his career, 14th on the all-time list.
Last season’s runner-up with 33 winners, Kathleen O’Connell, is a two-time Tampa Bay Downs training champion. Her career total of 2,190 victories is behind only Kim Hammond (2,321) among North American women trainers.
Michael Stidham, last season’s third-place trainer with 31 victories, returns, along with Mike Dini and Jose H. Delgado, who tied for fourth. Other conditioners who may lack the numbers to compete for a title, but bear watching, include Arnaud Delacour, H. Graham Motion, Tim Hamm, Eoin Harty and Anthony Granitz.
Joining the backside roster this season are Mike Maker, whose 2,600-plus career training victories include the recent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf with Fire At Will, plus 12 other graded stakes victories in 2020; Jon Arnett, who recently sent out career winner No. 2,000 at Prairie Meadows in Iowa; and David Van Winkle, a veteran of more than 30 seasons with almost 1,100 victories.