Saturday, March 3, 2012

Charlie Miranda, Steward

Many racetrack veterans consider the view from the stewards' booth atop the Tampa Bay Downs grandstand the best in the house.  But when an objection has been filed and the fate Many racetrack veterans consider the view from the stewards' booth atop the Tampa Bay of hundreds of thousands in wagers is at stake, there is no time to admire the scenic horizon. Fortunately, the track has the services of state steward Charlie Miranda, who is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a TBD steward after training Thoroughbreds for 11 years. Miranda often compares his role, along with that of association stewards John Morrissey and Dennis Lima, to baseball umpires -- "Except we can't make a mistake, because what we do here is viewed by everybody in the country" through simulcasting. The 71-year-old Miranda, a Tampa native, is a member of the Tampa City Council and was instrumental in crafting its common-sense approach last year to the issue of street solicitation by the homeless and newspaper vendors. Miranda's wife of 48 years, Shirley, died in December of 2009. He has three children and eight grandchildren.

I am doing better since I went into the hospital last July for hernia surgery. During the operation, my esophagus was punctured and my left lung became infected. So I needed additional surgery to drain the lung. The end result was, I didn't take one step until Oct. 15. When I first got up, I couldn't walk from here to you. Let me tell you, your body really turns on you when you're doing nothing. It eats up all your fat and muscle to survive. But I'm doing a lot of walking every day, and I’m starting to feel pretty good.

Getting back to work here made me get well quicker. Actually, I keep the other stewards alive. I hit them below the belt once in a while to shake them up, but they are great guys to work with and very knowledgeable in what they do.

I had hoped to travel last November to Cuba with a group of senior baseball players -- some of them part of the 1954 Cuscaden Park Optimist All-Star championship 12 and 13-year-old team from Tampa, including me -- but my health wouldn't allow. It was a Senior Baseball Fast-Pitch tournament. Yeah, a bunch of us are still crazy! My late father was from Cienfuegos, Cuba, and I wanted to show my sisters where he was born.

The rest of the team went to Cuba and did pretty well -- they won three games, lost two and tied one -- and the guys were able to bring equipment to some less-advantaged youth in Cuba. The trip was in recognition of our Cuscaden Park team going to Cuba in 1954, right before the revolution. I don't remember any team that age going outside the continental United States to play ball then. I was the left fielder and the third starting pitcher, and I played with a bunch of great guys.

Tony LaRussa, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Championship last year, was our shortstop. He was about 9 years old -- that's how good he was! He and I were co-captains and we roomed together. Bucky De La Torre and Wayne Vigil were also great players on our Cuscaden Park team. Bucky was drafted by the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), and he and Wayne both played for the great Clearwater Bombers fast-pitch softball team.

I did get to play some of our practice games before I went into the hospital to be repaired. Bucky, who was our field manager, told me I was starting pitcher against a team made up of fathers of the current Jefferson High players, guys in their 40s. It was my first time on a mound in 57 years. I pitched to one batter, and I struck him out on a 3-2 count with a slow-breaking curve.

Now, when I see him around town, he tells me 'Your ball really moved.' And I say, 'No, I'm so old the wind was moving it.'

A lot of Cubans ask me if I'm a native of Cuba. I'm actually from Ybor City, and it was a unique experience growing up there. It was an area where immigrants from Cuba and Spain and Italy landed and made their homes.

My late mother, who was born here, never spoke English. When I got to first grade, most of the kids -- myself included -- could only speak Spanish. But we made the adjustment. I was schooled in Tampa every step of the way -- Orange Grove Elementary, George Washington Junior High, Jefferson High, Hillsborough Community and the University of Tampa.

In the 1940s and '50s, we had a great transportation system of streetcars that went from Ybor City to west Tampa, all the way down Bayshore and Ballast Point through Seminole Heights and up into Linebaugh and Florida Avenue. But General Motors took care of that by saying streetcars are out and buses are in.

If we still had that system in place -- well, anything that works we seem to dismantle. But most of the changes I’ve seen have been for the better.

Our sport, horse racing, is a game that is in trouble. Fewer horses are being bred, and in the next two or three years a lot of tracks are going to have difficulty filling races. It's like the melting of the ice in the polar areas -- you and I don't see it, but we know it's happening. By the time the 2014 foal crop hits the ground, the number of horses available to tracks is going to decrease.

Horse racing is in need of a boost. I wish the industry would get more publicity -- we have a million stories on the backside, from people in khakis and overalls to multimillionaires who made their money somewhere else but are in racing for the love of the game. And it's an amazing production. From the breeders and owners down to the grooms, everyone has to work together to put on the show.

Every day in the sports section, you read page after page about a quarterback, an outfielder, a basketball player. A football team hires a new offensive coordinator -- what the heck do I care? Were they going to start the season without one? It's perpetual free advertising, but where do you see that about horse racing? The Daily Racing Form is seen only by a population that likes racing.

One major issue is that we are a sport that really has no heroes. The ones we have don't last long. They become stallions and broodmares. Your 3-year-old champion hardly ever races as a 4-year-old because of financial reasons, and he is forgotten by the public. The leaders of our sport need to find some way to keep our heroes running longer so the public gets interested and horse racing gets more backing from advertisers.

I am a fan of horse racing because it takes a lot of time and patience to develop a good horse, and it's very hard to do. Unfortunately, in a lot of racing jurisdictions, the industry is having to depend more and more on another industry -- gaming and slot machines, etc. -- to help fund the operational costs of putting on the show.

Does any other sport need income from another agency to survive? Not that I'm aware of. As an industry, we've reached a fork in the road and turned left instead of right, and I don't know where it's leading.

Tampa Bay Downs is doing very well compared to some other tracks because it is a winter destination and we get a combination of horsemen from all over the country here to compete. Not having a lot of media coverage makes it challenging, but 20 years ago if you went to the corner of
Racetrack Road
Hillsborough Avenue
and asked somebody where the track was, they wouldn't have known.

Tampa Bay Downs has the right attitude toward its customers. It treats them respectfully, and it tries to attract a younger audience with activities such as Family Fun Days and the golf driving range.

Politically speaking -- I know you don't want to go there -- I like to tell people I'm a member of the 'Human Race Party.' I'm not a follower of idealism, I'm a follower of realism. When I look at a candidate running for office, I want them to tell me what they're going to do, how they're going to do it and how they're going to fund it. One of our problems is we believe too much in what we hear and not enough in how we think. We forget to ask questions.

I am a great sports fan, but I'll never vote for any subsidization of a stadium for any franchise. That is gangsterism. Part of the media's job, I know, is to create this euphoric feeling that without a major league team in your city, you're not worthy. Well, then, there are a lot of cities that should be erased off the map.

As a city councilman, I would do the same thing for a sports franchise as I would for any developer. I would furnish the water, the sewer, the easements and the pavements, and after that it's your baby.

If you can afford to pay a baseball player $68,000 a day, then you can afford to build your own darn stadium. Don't come to somebody and hit them with another sales tax to build something. Do it on your own.

As a steward, I work with two fine individuals who have the same passion I do. During racing, there is no difference between a state steward and a track steward; it takes two votes to pass or defeat a call. The morning hours are the hardest part of our job. We deal with people who may have problems shipping horses or horses that are injured, plus a wide range of other issues. As a state steward, it is my responsibility to make sure all rules and regulations are adhered to.

Training horses taught me a lot. You work seven days a week, the hours are long and you have to understand there are peaks and valleys. The peaks are very tall yet short-lived, and the valleys are deep and profound.

You must take advantage of the horses when they are running well. They helped me to pay for some of the schooling for my three children to do whatever they wanted in life. I was also conservative. I didn't go out and buy a $50,000 truck; I did my running around in a Ford Ranger and when I hauled horses, I made sure to stay under the speed limit.

I won the 1986 Sam F. Davis Stakes with Fellow's Lady. I don't know if he was a hero per se, but he raced until he was 7 and won 10 times in 75 starts. I forget how much the Sam F. Davis was worth then, but his career earnings were about $86,000 and the Davis is now a $250,000 stakes. Yes, the sport has certainly changed in 25 years. 

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