Sam Davis was seated at his usual table in the front row of the Skye Terrace at Florida Downs racetrack in Oldsmar, Fla. as a field of 10 paraded to the post for the first race. Davis, 65, is a large, pleasant, outspoken man who in 1933 was captain and quarterback of the University of Florida football team and, a little over a year ago, began operating a racetrack for the first time, running it, furthermore, with remarkable success.
"I never imagined that I would be doing this," Davis said as he examined the horses. "I figured I would be spending this part of my life following my own horses around or just traveling. A year ago I didn't know a darned thing about running a track. I'm not sure, in fact, that I do even now." But owners who race their animals at Florida Downs feel strongly that Sam knows more than he lets on.
On the wall behind the desk in Davis' office, where he spends as little time as possible, is an impressive collection of awards given him for service to the city of Tampa. For 22 years he operated the prosperous Tampa Ship Repair and Dry-dock Co., which he sold to New York Yankee Owner George Steinbrenner III in 1972 for $2.5 million. None of the awards means as much to Davis, however, as a purple-and-black plaque he received last March from local horsemen in appreciation for keeping attendance up and money coming in.
Of the 150 thoroughbred race meetings conducted in North America in 1973, only a handful showed advances in attendance and wagering greater than those at Florida Downs in Davis' first season as both its president and general manager. Patronage rose 14.8% and betting 25.9% at a time when close to half the tracks saw their crowds drop off and almost 20% showed declines in mutuel play. With the 1974 meeting now nearing its final week, attendance is up another 6.8% despite gasoline shortages and tight money.
Florida Downs is certainly not Aqueduct or Santa Anita. It is not even Bowie. It is, in fact, more on a level with Assiniboia Downs near Winnipeg or Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis, Ill., where the average patronage is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 a day and the betting in the $300,000 range. The track is located on the west coast of the state, within easy driving distance of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Covering 475 acres, it has more property on which to expand than any other racetrack in the country.
"In time," says Davis, "I hope to make this the best small track in the United States." And he is stubborn enough to see that hope fulfilled. He was born on a farm in Smyrna, Tenn., about 20 miles from Nashville in the heart of mule country. "I came to know mules at a tender age," Davis says, "and I do not deny that perhaps some of their personality and characteristics may have rubbed off on me."
Matt Wynn, the man who put Churchill Downs on the map, built the forerunner of Florida Downs in 1924. It was called Tampa Downs and, despite local ordinances that forbade betting, managed to conduct a meeting. But the track did not reopen the following year, and only one regular meeting was held in the next 23 years.
In 1947 it came back to life as Sunshine Park, quickly earning such varied pseudonyms as "Cottonmouth Downs" (because snakes slithered along the back-stretch) and "Shoeshine Park" (because a patron needed one upon leaving). Little national attention was paid to Sunshine in its first season for about a thousand other reasons.
When the track did receive some publicity in its second year, it was for undesirable reasons. Mutuel play dropped to $77,000 a day and the purses were twice cut. Any time purses are lowered, oldtimers hold, thieves get to work as swiftly as vampires react to sunset. While Sunshine Park did not capitulate, it was in serious trouble, and it seemed to change ownership annually. Voodoo stalked the place. One year a water-skiing exhibition was started in the infield and the first time out the boats sank. Intrigue was rampant; twice the track was bombed, one charge exploding under the stairs leading to the jockeys' room.
Two personalities, however, helped bring some sunshine to Sunshine. Apprentice Tony DeSpirito, who in his early days rode like a desperado, pumped home his first winner at Sunshine in January 1952 and went on to break the all-time record for victories in a season, held for 46 years by Walter Miller. When DeSpirito finished his year at Sunshine by riding his 389th winner, he announced he was sending his share of the purse, $50, to Miller, who was seriously ill.
Then, in a radio interview from California, Sportswriter Grantland Rice was asked to name his favorite track, and everyone listening expected him to say Santa Anita, Hollywood Park or Saratoga. "Sunshine Park," said Rice.
Sunshine struggled on through the years until 1965 when it was renamed Florida Downs, but the new name did not lessen a long-held reputation among horsemen that it was merely a place where Kentuckians "got all the stall space whether they raced their horses there or not." That reputation held until 1971, when the mule came out in Sam Davis.
At the time Davis was primarily interested in his own large stable, Brooksville Farms. Brooksville produced a good-looking filly by Magic Egg, who had set the track record at Florida Downs for five furlongs. "I saw her foaled," Davis says, "and helped her into her stall. Named her S.D.'s Delight for my daughter Susan."
S.D.'s Delight won her first two races at Florida Downs and was made the betting favorite, at 3 to 5, for the $10,000 Florida Breeders Futurity, the track's most important race. When the gates opened, 11 horses came out. The 12th—S.D.'s Delight—stayed in. Joe Tutela, Delight's rider, said later, "I heard a buzz and a click. My horse lunged at the gate and bounced back. Then I heard the other horses breaking out. Finally my gate came open. They wanted me to take her around but by that time the others were too far down the track...."
Davis was furious. "Naturally," he recalls now, "all the rumors I had heard about the track in the past ran through my head. I wanted it called no race and the Futurity run again. I took depositions and raised all kinds of hell. The money bet on my horse was refunded and I got my nomination fees back. They said there was a short circuit in the gate, and I'm convinced that nothing malicious had taken place. But I got so mad at what happened to S.D.'s Delight that I bought the racetrack."
No sooner had Davis acquired Florida Downs than he started ridding it of its Ole Kentucky Home reputation. Straight off, he went to the Florida Breeders Association and told the members it would be to their advantage to stable at his track. He was out to show that Florida breeding was as good as any. Florida-breds accounted for only 6% of the horses in training in 1973, but they produced 13 of the top 30 money-winners, including Susan's Girl, London Company, Shecky Greene, Tentam, Wing Out and Tri Jet.
Today, a few of the better-known stables do race at Florida Downs, but because of the limited purse structure most of the 1,200 horses at the track fly the colors of outfits like The Ace of Hearts, Cocktail Hour or Big Hearted Leroy stables. As part of his upgrading program, Davis has negotiated attractive deals with the Florida Breeders. This year three of the track's races carried a stud service to My Dad George, Needles and Minnesota Mac as a bonus for winning. The top two races during the meeting remain the $10,000 Florida Breeders Futurity and the $10,000 Grantland Rice Memorial Handicap.
Davis' hope is eventually to add twilight racing in the summer so that his track can function 120 days a year. "We get a lot of summer tourists in this area," he says, "and I don't think we have enough diversions for them. We also have a lot of working people who could come to the races in the evening and not have to give up a day's work or a night's sleep." For the same reasons, Davis has kept admission prices nominal—$1 for grandstand and $2 for clubhouse. Once a week, senior citizens are allowed in free and every Thursday is Ladies' Day. The track is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.
If a jockey has a good meeting at Florida Downs he can make about $13,000, not much compared to the big tracks, and earning even that much is a scuffle. Still, Mike Manganello, the best-known member of Florida Downs' jockey colony, is enamored of the place. This is his 11th year as a rider there, and he has topped the jocks in six of the past seven years and tied for first once. In 1970 he came out of Florida Downs and onto the back of Dust Commander at Churchill Downs, where they ended up in the Derby winner's circle.
"I like riding here," Manganello said one afternoon recently between races. "I only like to take six mounts a day, and having Wednesdays off is a help to me. I can sketch or play golf or fish. This track has changed quite a lot for the better in the years that I have ridden here. And thanks to Sam Davis these last two seasons have been the best ever."
Part of the old Sunshine Park atmosphere lives on, too. The other day Manganello was bitten by a snake that had infiltrated the jockeys' room. Happily, it was nonpoisonous, not a cottonmouth. Sam Davis seems to be looking after everything.