Each winter before Sunshine Park opens, men with rifles stand alongside the murky, cordovan-colored infield lake gunning alligators while heavily booted crews stalk the backstretch, dismissing rattlesnakes and water moccasins from the only Thoroughbred race track on the west coast of Florida. Once the basic housework is done, however, Sunshine becomes an unpretentious, refreshing 52-day world unto itself.
With quiet valor it battles two greyhound tracks and a jai alai fronton for the tourist dollar from the expanding "Golden Triangle" formed by St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater. The horses that race over the mile track are mostly claiming horses with undistinguished careers, and the jockeys are either young apprentices just starting in or gnarled oldtimers riding out their waning talents.
While the average paid attendance is only about 2,500, the total often eclipses 4,000 on Thursday when women are admitted free. Even on the big day, Saturday, 5,000 stand casually eating apples or licking frozen custard as they watch the zhorses walk lazily from their barns on the backstretch through the twisting path in the infield on their way to the tiny, green saddling sheds which serve as a paddock at the north end of the grandstand.
Sunshine is more than typical of a web of smaller tracks like Ascot, Cranwood and Wheeling Downs which make up the second echelon of Thoroughbred racing in the United States. "Back in 1952," says the 55-year-old track president, W. Frank Hobbs, "everything to do with racing at Sunshine was justifiably suspect. There wasn't much money and, in fact, purses were only about $400. But then we started building and applying paint, and today there are new, $60,000 barns along the backstretch. With improvements we also attained more financial stability. For example, this year we will run the Florida Breeders Futurity with a purse of over $6,000.
"At one time, back in 1946 and 1947, you could buy common stock for 10¢ a share. Even last year some was offered for $1.50 a share." As he said it, Hobbs, a former Tampa lawyer who owns 120,000 shares himself, produced a card showing the current value of a share to be $3.25.
"Today we run with a minimum purse of $1,000 and we are trying to expand all the time. We are satisfied with a gradually improving setup—our daily average mutuel handle is now $202,446."
The track itself is controlled (51%) by F.E.M.B. Inc., the initials for New York attorney Frederick E.M. Ballon, who now serves as chairman of the board for Sunshine. "If the weather," says Hobbs, "gets a little better (and it has to) we will probably show a profit of $100,000 on the year after expenses.
"Today, we're told, any bookmaker in the country will take a bet on a race at Sunshine Park."
It might seem—by comparison to Belmont, Arlington, Hialeah or Santa Anita—that a post parade at Sunshine would reveal a top-heavy proportion of bandages and other assorted protective and prosthetic devices. However, horses, like water, always seem to find their own level, and on any day at Sunshine you might see, among the bandaged and blinkered runners, the colors of Jockey Club Member Tyson Gilpin and the Spring Hill Farm of James D. Norris competing on the same card with horses belonging to the proud one-horse stable owners.
Perhaps the horse and the man who best typify Sunshine Park are Early Bull, a fabulous winner last year, and his 55-year-old co-owner and trainer, Herb Jolley. The second cousin of Moody Jolley, the man training the most valued 3-year-old in America today, Nadir, Herb is an easygoing fellow who has been going to Sunshine for the past seven years because "my wife and children can rest down here and get a little time at the beach. And the people are nice to us down here. There is a good track kitchen and I can get some races into my horses before I take them up north to Wheeling."
ANOTHER ROUND TABLE
Early Bull, an 8-year-old bay gelding, won two races less last year than did the darling of California, Round Table. "There's a great difference between my horse and Round Table, though," says Jolley. "Even though we won 13 races in 18 starts, plus three seconds and one third, we won only $13,135. Round Table won quite a bit more [$600,258]."
Last week, as Early Bull was making his first start of 1958 over a track so muddy that it looked like molasses, Jolley talked about his horse. "He ran a match race in September against Noorahge for $2,000 winner-take-all at Wheeling Downs. Around Wheeling many of the people thought he was as good as Citation. Early Bull broke on top and was in front but then he threw his shoes and was beaten. But he kept winning after that, and in November I started resting him for Sunshine. I own half of him. Bought it for $1,250. He was always considered a three-legged horse because his left front knee used to be as big as a basketball. But I worked on him day and night, put his leg in a brace and he came around."
A few minutes later Early Bull broke from the gate in front of his field and won easily. Herb Jolley walked down the stretch, ankle-deep in mud, and stood with his wife in the winner's circle. He had won a $700 purse which he would have to split with the other owner of Early Bull, Cleveland Railroad Man Ford Miller. Last week Early Bull was going for his second victory and $700 more. Round Table, meanwhile, had run twice in California and won $96,380.
Sunshine will grow gradually, and if the area in which it sits continues to expand, it might someday be big time. Alligators and rattlers aside, Sunshine is strictly from outer space when compared to the big, jostling world of Jamaica; in its small, cozy and friendly way it is not unlike a Saratoga of the swamplands.