Wednesday, April 26, 2023
OLDSMAR - Tampa native Stella F. Thayer, whose keen-sighted guidance has elevated Tampa Bay Downs to a position of prominence within the thoroughbred racing industry, has been elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as a Pillar of the Turf.
Along with seven other members of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023, Thayer will be enshrined on Friday, Aug. 4 at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga at 10:30 a.m. The event is open to the public free of charge.
“I take the Pillar of the Turf recognition as much a tribute to all of those who have worked with me to improve Tampa Bay Downs and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame,” said Thayer, the first woman to hold the position of president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame from 2005-2014. “It’s something I greatly appreciate.”
A 1962 graduate from Hollins College in Virginia who earned her law degree in 1965 at Columbia Law School, Thayer is a member of the Florida, New Jersey and New York bars. She is an attorney and shareholder in the Tampa-based law firm of Macfarlane, Ferguson and McMullen, where she is engaged in the practice of Estate Planning, Probate, and Corporate Law.
Thayer’s efforts to upgrade Tampa Bay Downs after she and her brother Howell Ferguson purchased the racetrack in 1986 have had a major impact not only in the area, but throughout the sport of thoroughbred racing. Soon after buying the track, she named Controller Lorraine M. King as General Manager, marking the first time in racing history a thoroughbred track had separate female ownership and top management.
One of their first initiatives was the introduction of Sunday racing that December. A crowd of 5,893 proved to Florida lawmakers the viability of horse racing as a family activity, and two years later the state legislature permitted children to attend the races.
In 1990, Tampa Bay Downs became the first track in Florida to accept a simulcast signal, giving the “Oldsmar oval” a year-round presence in the area and fueling the growth of its popular stakes program. The Gr. III Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby quickly became a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby, producing winners of the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs in 2007 (Street Sense) and 2010 (Super Saver).
In May of 1997, Thayer, King, other track officials and City of Oldsmar representatives broke ground on a new turf course. The layout opened the following spring and has continued to draw wide acclaim from horsemen and jockeys while becoming the annual venue for four graded stakes races.
Horses have long been a part of Thayer’s life. She started riding when she was 5, and her father, Chester Ferguson, was part of an ownership group that in 1965 acquired the track, long known as Sunshine Park and renamed Florida Downs and Turf Club.
Thayer was elected to The Jockey Club in 2004 and named a steward for the organization in 2012. She is also a past president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which plays a leading role in the establishment of programs beneficial to the industry’s welfare, security and integrity.
As a thoroughbred owner, Thayer achieved a major milestone in 2018 when her 2-year-old Wonderment became the first filly in 14 years to win the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud in France.
Thayer has given back to her community through her involvement as a member of the board of trustees of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation; a member of the board of trustees of the University of South Florida Foundation; chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority (the governing board of Tampa International Airport); and chairman of the Hillsborough County Hospital Authority.
Before it was acquired by British Aerospace, Thayer was the chairman of the board and a director of Reflectone, a manufacturer of full-flight simulators.
Thayer will be enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame along with fellow Pillars of the Turf John W. Hanes II and Leonard W. Jerome; jockeys Corey Nakatani and Fernando Toro; and racehorses Arrogate, California Chrome and Songbird.
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