Tampa Bay Downs is my home track; I started working here in 2006 and only left to begin my career with America’s Best Racing. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I was incredibly excited to head down to the historic Oldsmar, Fla. track to cover one of my favorite Triple Crown prep races, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).
I was even more thrilled, I have to say, when I realized that I was heading out of New York in the middle of an absolutely unfair mid-March blizzard and into the Florida sunshine. I mean, come on you guys, I’m a native of the Sunshine State, and to me snow in March is unfathomable. Seriously, this is what outside looked like when I was on my way to JFK:
Once I arrived at Tampa International (a great airport, by the way!) I headed directly to go see some of my old friends and to jump on a horse and go for a ride. It was great; and to end the day as I did below after beginning it in a blizzard was absolute bliss.
I woke up bright and early this morning and headed straight to the track. It was sunny and crisp, and the horses getting their morning exercise were clearly enjoying themselves.
After taking in the beauty of a Florida spring morning at such a scenic track, I headed down to the grandstand. Tampa Bay Downs has a cool program called “Morning Glory” – this is where they invite the sports’ luminaries for a Q&A with fans, which is always a neat opportunity for horse racing enthusiasts. This morning’s guest was trainer Kenny McPeek, who was awesome. He answered questions on a range of subjects and seemed to be having a genuinely good time interacting with both track announcer Richard Grunder and the fans.
After absorbing McPeek’s wisdom, I ventured out to take in the scene at the races. The crowd was huge and the joint was jumping in celebration of the track’s biggest day of racing, and it was fantastic to see so many young families and groups of friends enjoying the festivities.
Speaking of young families at the track, how cute is this little munchkin? She was obsessed with the horses – I know that feeling!
Aside from the huge crowd of fans at the track, there was one other visitor that I had to take a photo of: this awesome gator. Check out the horses racing past him – he clearly was more interested in sunbathing than he was in the action happening behind him!
Another thing that I love about big race days anywhere in America is that the pony horses – those equines whose job it is to escort their Thoroughbred brethren from the saddling paddock to the starting gate – are always dressed to the nines. Check out the pom-poms on this guy!
After drinking in the scene, I headed into the paddock, which is the area where the horses get “dressed” (i.e., they have their saddles put on) before the race. While I was in there, I happened to catch Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez as he met up with his very first agent, Richie Allen. It was a great moment, and Allen told me afterwards that seeing Johnny become this successful was a thrill for him. I have to say, the joy on each of their faces when they saw each other was truly moving.
Then it was off to the races! The first thrill of the day came with the Suncoast Stakes. This is a race for 3-year-old fillies with Kentucky Oaks (G1) implications. The Kentucky Oaks is the female equivalent of the Kentucky Derby (G1), so this was very exciting to watch! A talented field of horses went to the starting gate, but Manuka Honey proved to be much the best. She won with absolutely no urging from Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado and looked like she had a blast showing the other horses who was boss.
Up next was the Hillsborough Stakes (G3). This is a grass race for older female horses, meaning that to get in contention the horses have to be four years old or older. I have a soft spot for this type of race, since these kinds of classy fillies and mares are true warriors and aren’t afraid to face stiff competition.
The Hillsborough was ruled by Old Tune (Brz) today; she faced the field of 11 other horses and drew away to win by over a length. I can’t wait to see where she goes next!
Then it was time for the main event: the Tampa Bay Derby! The heavily favored Verrazano looked like the proverbial million bucks, and loaded into the gate like a champ at race time. Here he is waiting patiently for the start of the race in the #6 stall.
Despite a troubled start to the race (and the fact that his jockey John Velazquez said he wasn’t very fond of the sandy Tampa Bay Downs track), Verrazano overcame all obstacles and won like a champion. I really, really like this horse, and he may be my Derby pick this year. Something tells me that I won’t be alone in this!
Image courtesy of Tampa Bay Downs/Tom Cooley Photography
Here he is heading into the winner’s circle post-race – I think he’s a serious, serious horse and he’s incredibly beautiful.
At the end of the day, it was an incredible Tampa Bay Derby, and it was so great to be back at my old home track and see such talented horses, riders and trainers. That’s it for today’s diary, but I’ll be back with more adventures tomorrow! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed today’s races as much as I did.