Thursday, April 26, 2012

Judy Gittins, Hostess

During the live season, Judy Gittins might have the best view in the house. She is the hostess inside the Stella Artois Garden Suite, located just past the finish line. For $7.50, guests receive a racing program, snacks, food and beverage service and great company, courtesy of Judy and parimutuel teller Joe Maley. "We try to help people understand what racing is about," Judy said, with an emphasis on camaraderie and fun. The view is panoramic, encompassing the lush turf course, big-screen infield television and tote board, the post parade and finish. And when the horses cross the wire and the noise subsides, the decelerating hoof beats of the horses provide an audible soundtrack from the theater-style seats. Judy – who has been at Tampa Bay Downs since 1986, in various capacities – feels blessed to stay involved, but it is her ability to relate to Thoroughbred racing fans from all backgrounds and income levels that makes the Stella Artois Garden Suite such a popular destination. Judy will soon return to her summer home in Saranac, N.Y. with her partner, Bobby Drollette, but when September rolls around, she'll start marking off her calendar until their return to Florida's west coast. Judy has four children and six grandchildren.

I'm still not sure why I was asked to write a blog. Most people my age, I think, don't even know what a blog is. And when I started reading the ones that have been posted this season, I got nervous, because these other people have done so much in horse racing.
I mean, Joe Waunsch, the Director of Stabling and former leading trainer, broke Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown. It doesn't get any better than that! And I was very impressed by (Special Events Director) Nicole McGill's blog. She has done such a great job bringing groups to enjoy a day at the racetrack, a lot of people who haven't been here before.
The blog from Ron Dill, the starter, brought back a lot of memories because my ex-husband, Doug Gittins, used to be the starter here. Doug moved to Sam Houston in Texas when they opened in the mid-1990s. Those guys on the gate crew are a tough bunch, believe me.
It's always fun hearing about (jockey) Rosemary Homeister, Jr., and it is even more enjoyable to read her story in her own words. I don't know if she's gotten enough credit for coming back and being so successful after having a baby last summer.
I really learned a lot reading the blog from the Association Veterinarian (Dr. Kristen Pastir). It was very informative and I believe that if the racing game, and Tampa Bay Downs, can keep attracting that quality of person, we are going to be in very good shape for the foreseeable future.
Even though I don't think I'm as interesting as those folks, the reason I agreed to write a blog is I've done just about everything else at the racetrack except announce a race and read a lip tattoo. The racetrack has always seemed a natural environment for me, because I grew up riding hunters and jumpers and five-gaited horses and did very well showing at the New York State Fair and in Canada.
It really started when I was about 10 and my dad won a pony in some kind of contest. I was so excited, because I loved horses, and I walked that pony home from Cadyville, N.Y. to Dannemora, which is about six miles. I led that pony right to the house, and Daddy converted the garage into stalls and that's how I got started.
Horses kept me out of a lot of trouble when I was young. I mean, boy trouble. I was so into my horses, I didn't really pay too much attention to a boy unless he had a nice horse.
I moved to Tampa in the 1970s after I came down from New York to visit my sister. I looked around the area and said, this is for me! My background was in food and beverage service, and I worked at The Barn Bar, a racetrack hangout, down on Hillsborough Avenue. It was a place owners and trainers and horse people visited after the races. Later on, we had all the bikers. We stayed open until 3 a.m. and everything in Pinellas County closed at 2 a.m., so we would be mobbed on the weekends.
I worked on the floor, I worked behind the bar and sometimes I worked in the kitchen. Then the owner, Arlene Croft, said she was going to close the place unless I agreed to manage it, so I did that. I was there about 14 years and met a lot of nice people, including Doug Gittins, who worked at the racetrack.
When I started at Tampa Bay Downs in 1986 I was the greeter at the door and in charge of programs. Then Mrs. (Lorraine) King, who was the general manager, asked me to run the admissions department. I wasn't sure if I was capable because I wasn't computer savvy, but she convinced me with the proper training I could do it. I have always been thankful for her encouragement and support because it started a whole new career for me.
By 1989, I was Director of Admissions and Parking, a job I also held at Monmouth Park. I thought I had it made, because I got to spend the winter down south at beautiful Tampa Bay Downs and spend the summer on the Jersey shore! Jimmy Scatuorchio, the owner of More Than Ready, English Channel and Scat Daddy, was a good friend, and his daughter and son worked for me at Monmouth.
I remember the first year (trainer) Bob Baffert came for the Haskell Stakes. We had a big breakfast with the officials and trainers and other folks, and he came over and kissed my cheek. I said “Oooh!” That made me feel pretty special.
For a few years before I went to Monmouth, we would leave here and go to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. I was in charge of food and beverage service in the dining room, and I had 150 college kids working under me. I got many compliments from people who said they got the best service they've ever had.
Before I got there, the kids would stay in the kitchen instead of waiting on people, but I decided to change the whole atmosphere and attitude of the place. They would see me helping out – if the cook got behind I'd stay in the kitchen to help him, and if the dishwashers got behind I would take my jacket off and get busy. The kids respected me for that, and before long everyone was pitching in to make the customer experience top-notch and the restaurant a place where people wanted to keep returning.
Mr. (Peter) Berube, the general manager here, put me in charge of the Stella Artois Garden Suite four or five years ago. It has really gotten busy because it is such a beautiful spot on the track, and I love it. Once people spend a day there, a lot of them say they're never going back to where they were before.
As much as I love the horses, it's the people that make my job rewarding. Joe and I enjoy meeting and serving everyone, whether they are big bettors or someone at the track for the first time. Joe is very good at explaining how the betting works, the different kind of bets and how to make them.
You have to remember, when people come to the racetrack for the first time, a lot of the terminology sounds like a foreign language. We'll get asked 'Do horses run in the rain?' (Yes), or 'Do the same horses run in every race?' (No), or 'Where are they coming from?' So we'll explain what happens on the backside of the track, which is like a little village, and you see people start getting interested. By the time they leave, a lot of them have met new friends and made plans to meet up here again.
Bobby, my partner, is retired from Budweiser, and we have a nice house up in Saranac, N.Y. It's up in the mountains, and we enjoy camping and fishing. Sometimes we'll go into Montreal to the casino. That is a very cosmopolitan city. Or we'll spend a week at Saratoga for the races. But there isn't a whole lot do up there, so we're always looking forward to driving back here in our travel trailer and seeing all our friends.
Like I said, I don't think I'm as interesting as the other bloggers, but I certainly have met some fascinating people. Not many people remember when they had Quarter Horse racing here at Tampa Bay Downs one summer in the mid-1970s, but that's how I met Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore. They used to sit at the end table of the dining room, and he had running Appaloosas at his farm in Jupiter.
I got to know him pretty well, and he asked me to help out on his farm, so on Sunday afternoons I went to Jupiter and rubbed his horses. That was one of the best jobs I've ever had. The horses would stick their heads out of the stalls and start nickering when I went to feed them, and some nights they would race at Pompano on the east coast.
Usually, I would be too tired to eat when I got home, but I loved it. So you can see, like I always say, horses kept me out of a lot of trouble – even with Burt Reynolds!

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