OLDSMAR, FL—Before the 2023-2024 meet, Tampa Bay Downs received a $5.5-million allocation from the state of Florida for purses and operations. Officials earmarked 90% for overnight purses, enabling the track to lure its strongest roster of trainers, jockeys and horses in recent memory.

The public responded to the upsurge in quality by wagering $361,483,261, a 2.4% increase from 2022-2023. The average daily handle rose to $4,016,481.

Additional increases in both the number of starters and average starters per race helped stamp the 2023-2024 Tampa Bay Downs racing season, which ended Saturday, a success.

But an unseasonably wet winter and early spring, coupled with the loss of an estimated $5-million in handle on March 9 when a communications outage led to the tote system shutting down and the Grade 3 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby being declared a non-wagering event, left track Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube wondering what might have been.

“The events of March 9 were unprecedented in our experience and steps have been taken to assure they will not happen again here, or hopefully, anywhere else,” Berube said.

“It’s a reflection of our popularity as a major winter Thoroughbred track that we were able to post gains in wagering and other key categories in spite of not being able to accept wagers on our biggest race of the season.”

The estimated wagering handle lost on March 9 would have resulted in Tampa Bay Downs being up about $14-million (3.8%) from the previous year.

The number of starters at the meet rose 9.56% (from 6,190 in 2022-2023 to 6,782) and the average starters per race went up 9.03% (from 7.58 to 8.26). More rain than normal caused the number of turf races to decline by 10.47%, from 277 to 248.

“The popularity of our turf program leads to bigger fields and more wagering opportunities for our customers,” Berube said. “Weather is always a variable in winter and early spring, but it seemed like Mother Nature worked against us more than usual.”

Fueled by the boosts to maiden special weight and higher-level allowance race purses, Tampa Bay Downs paid out $21,898,640 in total purses, 26% more than a season ago. Overnight purses climbed from $155,596 a day to $211,535, a 35.95% rise.

On-track attendance decreased less than 1% to 243,526, and total on-track handle fell less than 1%, to $15,917,768.

“The main takeaways are that we improved in most major categories and that the overnight purse increases will remain in effect next season,” Berube said. “With the competition for wagering and recreational dollars growing more and more intense, we’re confident we have established a firm foothold both locally and throughout the simulcast market that will enable us to keep moving upward.”

The 2024-2025 meet is expected to begin on Wednesday, Nov. 20.

Return to the May 9 issue of Wire to Wire