Ten Things to Know Before You Go: Tampa Bay Derby

Events / Travel
Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

This Saturday, top 3-year-old Thoroughbreds will converge on Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla., to battle for a $350,000 purse and 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points in the Tampa Bay Derby. If you’re planning a trip to the track, we have 10 things you need to know before you go! Full disclosure: Before I started with America’s Best Racing, I was lucky enough to work at Tampa Bay Downs for six years. This track feels like home to me, so I hope you love it as much as I do! 

1. Know the contenders.

While horses won’t officially enter the Tampa Bay Derby until later this week, we have a good idea of who’s going run: Sam F. Davis Stakes (that’s the prep race for the Tampa Bay Derby) winner Sol Volante will likely be challenged by Kentucky Derby hopefuls Chance It, Spa City (whose father, Street Sense, won the 2007 editions of the Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby), and Louisiana’s pride Restless Dancer.

2. There are some pretty great races taking place before the Tampa Bay Derby.

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Some of the nation’s best Derby hopefuls won’t be the only talented horses gracing Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday: The afternoon’s program offers big races for just about every division, including the Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the grass, the Challenger Stakes for 4-year-olds and upward, the Hillsborough Stakes for older female horses who run on the lawn, the Columbia Stakes for 3-year-old turf runners, and the Manatee Handicap for fillies and mares 4 years old and up. With this many top races scheduled to run on Saturday, Tampa is sure to be a horse lover’s paradise!

3. Some of the brightest (human) stars in the sport will be there, too.

What happens when the top horses come to Tampa Bay Downs? Their humans follow, of course! Some of the very best trainers and jockeys will be in Oldsmar on Saturday, so make sure your phone is charged so you can get your photo with your favorite horse people. Want more? If you head to the track at 11 a.m. on Sunday, you can be a guest at “Morning Glory.” That’s when track announcer Richard Grunder interviews a prominent member of the racing community while fans enjoy free coffee and donuts. What could be better?

4. Tickets are still available, and they’re super affordable.

Don’t have tickets yet? Don’t worry! There are still some tickets available if you want reserved seating … and they’re not going to break the bank. Reserved finish line seats are just $15 each, while premium seats are $25. If you’re cool with general admission, the news is even better: It costs just $3 a person to get inside the racetrack on Tampa Bay Derby day. Talk about a good deal!

5. Keep your eyes peeled for the infield gator!

How do you know you’re really in Florida? Alligators, that’s how; and Tampa Bay Downs has one of the great ones. This guy has been sunbathing in the infield pond as long as I can remember, and he’s become a beloved (if feared: I mean, come on, he’s basically a dinosaur, right?) icon at the track.  

6. The Cuban sandwiches there are possibly the best food ever.

OK, I looked really hard for a photo of the Tampa Bay Downs Cuban sandwich on Instagram, but I couldn’t find one; so here’s a really cool image of the track instead. Just know that this sandwich, which you can buy at the carved sandwich shop on the first floor of the grandstand, is life-changingly delicious. Eat one. You will not regret it.

7. Sorry, Gritty, but Tampa Bay Downs’s mascot is the best one in sports.

Look, the googly-eyed weirdo known as Gritty is amazing and I love him, but Mouse? Mouse is perfection. She’s a miniature horse who the track adopted back in 2009 when she was rescued from a bad situation. Since then, she’s spent her time welcoming kids to the racetrack, posing for photos, and generally being the best creature on the planet. While she likely won’t make an appearance on Saturday (it’s a really big day for such a little horse) keep your eyes peeled for her on Sunday, March 8.

8. Tampa Bay Derby day is a great reason to break out your best spring style.

If you’re heading to Tampa from the frozen North like I am, you’re going to be happy to know that (as of right now, Monday, March 2) the forecast for Saturday in Oldsmar says it’s going to be around 70 degrees and sunny. That means it’s time to break out your favorite spring fashion to strut your stuff on the biggest racing day on Florida’s west coast!

9. Want a Sunday Funday? Swing by The Downs Golf Practice Facility.

Want to add to an already sporty weekend? Then do I have the place for you: The Downs Golf Practice Facility is one of the most popular driving ranges around, and you can tee up and practice your swing while you wait for the races to begin right next door. Sounds like a dream to me!

10.  If you like free money, you’re going to LOVE Tampa Bay Derby day.

That’s because every single person who pays admission (again, only $3 for GA!) gets a mystery betting voucher worth anywhere from $3 to $1,000. That means your first bet is on the house, and that bet could be a big one!

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