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Tampa Bay Downs first opened its doors in 1926 under the name of the Tampa Downs as the racetrack of the West Coast Jockey Club, and has since amassed a long and colorful history. The founding operation was headed by Ohio investor Harvey Myers and Kentucky Colonel Matt J. Winn.
In 1943, the United States Army took over the track for use as a training facility.
In 1946 the track was renamed Sunshine Park, and entered the modern era with the installation of an electric starting gate, photo finish and electric tote board.
During the 1950s, the racecourse was a popular attraction with many sportswriters who came to the Tampa Bay area to cover baseball spring training. Legendary names like Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Fred Russell and Arthur Daley became regular visitors, calling the track the "Santa Anita of the South."
The year 1965 marked the third name change for the track when it became Florida Downs and Turf Club. The track was renamed Tampa Bay Downs in 1980.
On February 12, 1981, Julie Krone, then a 17-year-old apprentice jockey and now a U.S. Racing Hall of Fame member, got her first career victory here on Lord Farkle.
In 1983 the track began running periodic Arabian horse races. The Arabian-bred program ended in 2003.
The present owners, Stella F. Thayer and her brother Howell Ferguson, purchased the track in its entirety at auction in 1986.
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Tampa Bay Downs grandstand and dirt track, with adjacent turf course (2019)
In 1998 Tampa Bay Downs added its 7/8-mile grass track, complete with a quarter-mile chute, which has become one of the most popular turf courses in North America.The course was completed in the spring of 1998 and the first race was contested on May 2, 1998. This new avenue has provided more opportunities for horsemen and patrons alike. Other renovations include a 22-acre (89,000 m2) golf range and short-game area called The Downs Golf Practice Facility, including a 270-yard (250 m) driving range and betting machines.
When Tampa Bay Downs concluded its 81st season on May 6, 2007, the track had established new records in handle, attendance and purses paid, including an all-time attendance mark of 11,014 on Kentucky Derby Day, May 5, 2007, which featured Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense becoming the first graduate of the Tampa Bay Derby to win the Kentucky Derby. A new single-day attendance record of 12,746 was established March 15, 2008 on Festival Day, featuring the Tampa Bay Derby. Tampa Bay Derby Day 2007 also marked the Oldsmar oval's highest-ever handle, with $10,916,634 wagered on the Tampa Bay Downs signal on that day; a new mark of $10,949,948 was set March 12, 2011.
Street Sense and Any Given Saturday were two of the notable horses that competed over the Tampa Bay Downs surface in the 2006-2007 racing season, with Street Sense defeating his rival by a nose in the Tampa Bay Derby. More recently, 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Eclipse Award turf champion Gio Ponti, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer, Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, Eclipse Award winner Tepin, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Belmont winner Tapwrit have raced at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Silks Poker Room opened on December 13, 2003.
Tampa Bay Downs has 28 stakes scheduled for the 2018-2019 meeting, including six that are graded. The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, contested March 9 for a $400,000 purse, is a Grade II race for 3-year-olds. The $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds, a Grade III event, is Feb. 9. Other graded races are scheduled on the turf: the Grade II, $225,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies; the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares; and the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for horses 4-years-old and upward.
Before the 2007-2008 race meet began, Tampa Bay Downs underwent several renovations, including the installation of the Grandstand elevator; the all-new Silks Poker Room, located on the third floor of the Grandstand; and the Party Suite, adjacent to the Silks Poker Room, which was also updated with new flat-screen TVs installed. The Legends Bar, which includes a museum-quality exhibition of famed Thoroughbred Seabiscuit, became the newest feature of the Legends Bar on the second floor of the Grandstand. Horsemen enjoyed improvements to the Paddock area, with all-new stalls in the saddling barn ensuring the safety and comfort of horses and their connections. Other facility upgrades at the Oldsmar oval include a refurbished Racing Office on the backstretch, as well as a renovated track kitchen.
Average daily wagering handle during the 2010–11, 90-day meeting was a record $4,572,074, an increase of 9.2 percent from the previous season. The average field size of 9.11 horses per race was among the highest in the country and was aided by an increase in the number of turf races, from 205 to 243. Average daily attendance was 3,195. The 31st running of the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 attracted a record all-source wagering handle of $10,949,948, which included $876,063 wagered on track.
Prior to the 2011–2012 meeting, the track installed Trakus, an electronic tracking system which displays the exact position and location of each horse on television monitors during a race. Tampa Bay Downs began a green initiative to eventually result in a net-zero impact on the environment. Other improvements included a CREE LED lighting system in the clubhouse and grandstand and the installation of a Gaco Sil S-20 Cool Roof coating system.