Friday, January 27, 2012

Kathleen O'Connell, Trainer   
Kathleen O’Connell has been a mainstay at Tampa Bay Downs since she arrived in 1976 to gallop horses for trainer W.R. Harp. Since starting her own stable in 1981, she has saddled 1,398 winners with purse earnings in excess of $22.5 million, but more impressive is her consistency: her runners have earned more than $1 million for 13 consecutive years. Known as one of the hardest workers on the track, she shows no signs of slowing her breakneck pace. O’Connell splits time between Tampa Bay Downs, where she has about 30 horses, and Gulfstream, where she trains about 15. Last March, she won the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with 43-1 shot Watch Me Go for her long-time client, Florida owner-breeder Gilbert Campbell. Other top O’Connell horses include Grade II winner Blazing Sword, the precocious filly Ivanavinalot, Shananie’s Beat, Lindsay Lane, Shananie’s Finale, Sheer Bliss and Fly by Phil. O’Connell won the 1998-99 Tampa Bay Downs training title and shared it two seasons ago with Jamie Ness. Also in 2009-10, she became the first woman to capture a training title in the 39-year history of Calder Race Course in Miami.

I have to agree with the guy who said ‘Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothing.’ Going there with Watch Me Go was a wonderful experience, something I know I’ll never forget.
I was really happy for the owners, Mr. Campbell and his wife, because they’ve been in the business a long time and raised a lot of good horses. Even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, it was a phenomenal eight or nine days.
I can’t believe how quickly the week went. It sounds ridiculous now, but I thought I was going to have all this free time because I was dealing with one horse. I even brought a book with me, but I never opened it, because there was so much going on.
It’s non-stop action all week – the media, events and dinners for the trainers, just getting back and forth between the track and everywhere else. I saw people at Churchill Downs I hadn’t seen in 20 years, folks who used to work for me. And I was still doing the entering and scratching at Tampa Bay Downs and Calder via telephone, so that part of my world didn’t change.
The Derby walk is everything I thought it would be, and then some. You look at the grandstand packed to the rafters, and it’s like a sea of heads. You just can’t believe there can be that many people packed into a space like that. I worried about my horse acting up, but he was a pro. And there was such a small area to saddle the horses in the paddock – I think God protects all, because they are still 3-year-old horses that are not used to massive crowds and prone to act up.
You have to have a lot of luck in this business just to win a race, much less to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby. First, your horse has to stay healthy to get to the gate. Then you need a decent post, the pace has to unfold right and the jockey has to help your horse.
There is so much that goes into it that it is amazing to contemplate. This is the only business where you can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and do things right and still not get lucky.
I’m pretty sure the day is long gone when people refer to me as a ‘female trainer.’ But it sure wasn’t like that when I started in the business. I still have my first racetrack license from Detroit Race Course in 1970, and it says ‘Pony Boy.’ There were no women jockeys or exercise riders. The business has come a long way, but things used to be a lot different.
Even though I had a 3.8 grade-point average in high school and graduated in the top 15 percent of my class, and had four years of 4-H experience, I got turned down when I applied to veterinarian school at Michigan State. It never crossed my mind I wouldn’t be accepted, but I learned they only took two girls a year. I tried community college and took a job with Guardian Photos developing 8 millimeter movies, and I hated it.
So I decided I would go to the racetrack until I figured out what I wanted to do. Here it is 40 years later, and I’m still here.
You give up a lot when you work with Thoroughbreds. I used to get on 8-to-10 horses a morning, but I’ve got so much arthritis in my neck and back that I can hardly move from side to side. Blazing Sword, I galloped him his whole career. I’ve gotten on a lot of nice horses, and I really miss that aspect of training, getting up on my horses and exercising them on the racetrack.
Health is always an issue – both mine and the horses. I’ve had pneumonia three times, twice in Michigan and once in New Orleans. When you gallop in the winter, you breathe in all that cold air and it’s a struggle taking care of yourself.
The biggest sacrifices I’ve had to make, though, are my personal relationships. My parents are coming down from Michigan next month – my dad is 87 and my mom is 84 – and they don’t fly, so the trip is a concern. From this end, if I get home once a year for four days, that’s a miracle. And that’s just not right. They’re in pretty good shape for their age, but they are not going to be around forever. I wish I lived closer to spend more time with them.
Earlier in my career, I cut some corners to make a personal relationship work, and it didn’t work anyway. So as I got older, it was like ‘This is the way I am, this is what I do –if you’re happy with it, fine, and if you’re not, that’s fine too.’ You have to find somebody unique and very understanding to put up with the schedule of a horse trainer.
I was fortunate in 2002 to meet a gentleman who lives in south Florida who is a triathlete. If you’re going to swim two-and-a-half miles, bike 112 miles and run 26 miles after that, this is a person who is consumed with what they do, just like I am with what I do. He already got what I was doing, and we still are seeing each other.
I’ve been blessed in this business to be with Mr. Campbell for more than 20 years and with Mr. (John) Franks when he was alive, and now with Larry and Vicki Stumpf, clients down south who operate Blackacre Farms.
I think one reason Mr. Campbell and I have such a lasting relationship is that he understands every aspect of the business.
He knows horses are going to get sick or hurt and things are going to happen. Some people, I think, get in this business and don’t understand you are dealing with flesh and bone and blood. You might be the best caretaker, the best feeder, have the best blacksmith and everything else, and something unforeseen happens and they get hurt. In this business, the highs are very high and the lows are very low.
I remember when we had Blazing Sword on the Kentucky Derby trail in 1997 for Mr. Campbell. He had finished second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth and we were on our way. Then, two days later, he became sick and instead of prepping him for the Derby, I was taking him to a veterinarian clinic. To this day, we don’t know what it was, but he almost died.
But he was an amazing horse. Later that summer, we took him to the Remington Park Derby in Oklahoma and he ran second, and he was fourth in the Travers at Saratoga. Then, he finished third in the Super Derby, the Hawthorne Derby and Hollywood Derby, and he won the Calder Derby that fall.
And as a 6-year-old, he rewarded us by winning the Widener at Gulfstream and the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington, which were both graded races. I still can’t believe all the places Blazing Sword took us.
Another great horse of Mr. Campbell’s was Ivanavinalot, who won five of her first six races. She won the Florida Stallion My Dear Girl Stakes by almost 14 lengths, and we were ready to take her to Arlington in Chicago for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
We had made the airplane reservations and everything was on ‘Go.’ Then, two days after the My Dear Girl, I came into the barn and she had maybe a quarter-scoop of grain left in her tub. And she had never missed an oat the whole time I had her, even when she had a slight cold.
She didn’t have a temperature, but when we took her to the track and jogged her, she didn’t seem her usual self. So we ran a blood test, and her white cell count was all out of whack and she was starting to get an infection. Even though we caught it right away and nothing devastating had happened, we couldn’t get on that plane and make that race.
That is one of the toughest calls I’ve ever had to make. Nobody associated with Ivanavinalot wanted to believe she was not going to make the dance, not the way she’d been running. But you have to do right by your horses, and I was very proud the next season when she ran second in the Davona Dale Stakes and won the Grade II Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream.
I am lucky to have people working for me who understand that every detail is important. Brian Smeak, my assistant, has been with me 12 or 13 years, and I have exercise people down south who I’ve used for more than 10 years. And I have seasonal employees here at Tampa Bay Downs who come back every year, so I feel very blessed to have such a good support team.
It’s a big wheel to churn. You’re not always going to agree on everything and it is not always going to be wonderful, but everybody respects each other and that’s what is needed.
I try to match horses with the right grooms, exercise riders and jockeys, because horses have minds, too. You try to make everything click. They are out of these stalls maybe an hour-and-a-half every day, so they had better be happy because if they’re not happy, they’re not going to be productive.
I’m proud of all the people I train for – not only the Campbells and the Stumpfs, but some of the other people who have been with me for years. Those relationships are so rewarding. The Derby was a wonderful deal, and I want to take a horse to the Breeders’ Cup.
But at the end of the day, if it’s a $12,500 claiming horse that goes out and hits the board every time it runs, I mean, what else can you ask for? That’s very fulfilling too.
I want the best for all my clients, because they are also my friends. And nobody goes over there with the idea of losing – everybody wants to win. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Carol Siciliano, Stewards' Assistant and Claims Clerk

When you’ve worked at one place almost 30 years, like Tampa Bay Downs stewards’ assistant and claims clerk Carol Siciliano, it’s hard not to trip over the memories. Yet Carol and her husband Sam Siciliano, the track’s paddock judge and a former jockey, bring an energy level to their jobs that others strive to match. Carol works in tandem with the stewards to uphold the integrity of the claims process and files the reports, notices and rulings that accompany each day’s performance. Along the way, she has made enough friends and encountered enough characters to fill several scrapbooks.
I don’t know how the jockeys’ wives feel these days, but I never had a problem with Sam’s career choice. I always knew that he knew what he was doing, that he could take care of himself on the racetrack. He had a couple of pretty bad spills, but he survived and we made it through, thanks to prayer and our faith in God.
Sam rode for about 25 years at all the major Midwestern tracks: Arlington, Hawthorne, Washington Park, Sportsman’s, Keeneland, Latonia, Detroit, River Downs and Beulah Park in Ohio and, of course, Churchill Downs. He competed against the top jockeys – (Bill) Shoemaker, (Eddie) Arcaro, (Bill) Hartack. They were all good friends and good people.
I watched his races when I could, but we had three sons who were all into sports and I was following them, so I didn’t get out to the track as much as I should have. A lot of us wives used to meet on Saturdays. We’d corral around the paddock, take the kids and have a good afternoon.
Sam used to ride a horse named I Been Robbed, but we called him ‘The Thief.’ Sam actually won quite a few races on him and I used to make sure I went to the races on those days, because I loved that horse.
When my youngest son turned 16, I took my first job on the track, in the tack shop at River Downs outside Cincinnati. I sold saddles, horseshoes, racing equipment and other supplies. I loved every minute of it and that prepared me for our life after Sam was ready to retire as a jockey.
Like so many jockeys, it was always Sam’s goal to ride in the Kentucky Derby. I thought he might get there in 1984 with a horse trained by Gerry Russell named So Vague, but Sam was in a bad spill at Beulah Park less than three weeks before the Derby. He broke his collarbone and five ribs, punctured his lung and damaged his spleen. He was in pretty bad shape; it took him about 6-to-8 weeks to recover.
Patti Cooksey ended up riding So Vague (who finished 11th). Around that time, I knew Sam really didn’t want to go back to riding.
We had talked about retiring before then, but at no time did I ever think about asking Sam to quit or saying ‘I don’t want you to do that any more.’ I think every person needs to choose for themselves what to do with their lives. I wouldn’t have wanted him, or anyone, to say to me ‘Carol, you need to quit your job and do something else.’ We knew when he was ready.
Warren Wolf, who used to be the racing secretary here and at River Downs, helped Sam transition into working as a racing official. When we came to Tampa Bay Downs in 1982, I started working in the gift shop, which at that time was actually a novelty stand. About two years later, Mrs. (Lorraine) King, the general manager, said they needed somebody for the claims job, so I went and interviewed with (then-racing secretary) Bob Clark and got the job. I have been doing it ever since.
As fate would have it, our friend Bill Hartack was one of the stewards here then, along with John Hanley and Bill Ellis. We used to go to Bill Hartack’s house all the time to play cards, and I would help cook. We were good friends with the Hanleys, and I still keep in contact with John’s wife Jean.
Hartack, who won the Kentucky Derby five times, was a very private person. He was happy to autograph his book, but he didn’t like being bothered by a bunch of people, so he usually would sign it and have me hand it out to people who asked for it.
I have an excellent relationship with our present stewards: John Morrissey, Dennis Lima, William Keen and Charlie Miranda. They are all gentlemen, but we joke around a lot.
Sometimes I tell them the most important part of my job is to have fresh coffee ready, because they can be very grumpy in the morning. They know I’m joking. But the main reason everything seems to run so smoothly in this office is because we get along well and help each other.
The stewards are under a lot of stress, but they can handle it. They’re tough guys. In here, you do what needs to be done and try to enjoy every day. To me, every day is a blessed one and I try to make the best of it.
I’ve worked with so many good stewards here – the ones I’ve already mentioned, and men such as Bob Clark, Mike Anifantis, Dick Kinsey, Arthur Pedregal, Jr. and Heriberto Rivera, Jr., the former jockey. Charlie Miranda and Arthur, who unfortunately is no longer with us, used to be trainers here and were both training at River Downs when I started in the tack shop.
In the mornings on race days, I do all my paperwork – daily reports for the Internet, hearing notices, rulings, and owner and trainer transfers that have to be documented and sent to the racing office. If a horse is beaten more than 35 lengths, we put it on the stewards’ list and it has to work for the clocker before it is allowed to race again.
There are several steps I need to follow for a claim. First, I call the track bookkeeper to make sure there is enough money in the account. Then I call the stewards to advise them of the claim.
Next, I call the jockeys’ room and inform the clerk of scales, because he has to tell the valet. Then I tell Richard, the announcer, so he can tell the public, and then I call Equibase so it is included in the chart.
Plus, if the horse finishes first or second, I have to call the ‘spit barn’ because the claimed horse has to be tested. Finally, I have to fax my transfer paper over to Allison De Luca in the racing office.
It can get pretty hectic when more than one claim is put in on a certain horse and we have to perform a shake to determine who gets the horse, or when two or more horses are claimed from the same race. I remember one race when we had eight claims on one horse and three or four on another.
I called Margo (Flynn, the Tampa Bay Downs Vice President of Marketing) and she called the bookkeeper and helped me out. Teamwork means everything in a situation like that.
Once the horse breaks the gate in a race, it means the claim is official and the horse has a new owner. One of the saddest things for me is when a horse is injured or breaks down after it has been claimed. I don’t care if it’s $5,000 or $32,000, that is a lot of money to most of these trainers. Through the years, most of the horsemen have become like family, and that is always a difficult situation.
Sam and I really haven’t thought about retiring, maybe because the meet is only a few months out of the year and we enjoy being here so much and seeing all our friends. We used to work at the fair meets in Massachusetts for about eight years before they started closing. Sam was racing secretary one year and an assistant the other years, and I was an entry clerk and placing judge.
We miss being a part of that scene, but now when the live meeting here ends we head up to our place in Beverly Hills (Fla.) and rest and relax and swim in the pool.
We do a lot of walking and hiking in the summer, work in the yard a lot. We go and aggravate our kids once in a while, go to visit our grandkids. Sometimes we take little side trips, looking for a new adventure.
What’s always in the back of our minds is the start of the next season at Tampa Bay Downs. And every year, it seems to get here quicker.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mark Guidry, Jockey

When jockey Mark Guidry retired at 48 after the 2007 fall meeting at Churchill Downs, his accomplishments included 5,043 victories, more than $100 million in purses, about two dozen riding titles (mostly in the Midwest) and wins in such prestigious races as the Kentucky Oaks and Santa Anita Derby. The Lafayette, La. native also won the 2006 George Woolf Award – presented annually to a rider whose career and personal character earn esteem for himself and the sport of Thoroughbred racing – both for his feats in the saddle and his efforts assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina in his home state. After hanging up his tack, Guidry tried to get a job as a racing official and worked as a trainer, but when he began exercising horses last year for trainer Dale Romans, he regained the urge to compete. After launching his comeback last summer at Ellis Park, Guidry soon won a stakes at Kentucky Downs aboard Snow Top Mountain for trainer Tom Proctor – proof four years had done little to dull his skill and instincts. At Tampa Bay Downs, he currently is eighth in the standings with 10 victories and has finished first or second with 41.3 percent of his mounts. Guidry and his wife Tina have three grown children: sons Marcus and Mecus and daughter Fallon.
My biggest fear about coming back was I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I don’t think that fear has evaporated yet, I really don’t. I didn’t want to deflate anything that I have accomplished in my career. That was the No. 1 thing.
I’ve always been my worst critic. I don’t blame nobody but myself when I don’t win a race. I don’t blame the other riders, because I feel like I should have known better, maybe put myself in a better position. Whatever happens, I’ve got the reins. I’ve got control. So nobody has to be hard on me because there ain’t nobody harder on me than I am on myself.
The last couple of years before I retired, I was at a point where maybe I was burned out after riding for 32 years. It seemed like every time I talked to a trainer after a race about how things went, I was defending myself, defending my actions. Now, it’s not like that.
I think I’m more competitive now than I was before I retired. I’m feeling real good, so we’re just going to go as long as we can.  I’m going day by day, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities everyone is giving me.
When I came back at Ellis Park in August, it was kind of like having the bug again. I didn’t know what kind of response I was going to get; heck, I didn’t know how many of the riders knew who I was. But I was always comfortable around my peers and they made it really cool. Like Jon Court, he said ‘Gid, it’s so nice to have you in here.’ Corey Lanerie, Little Brian (Hernandez), Calvin (Borel), it was basically all my homeboys from Louisiana, and Jon Court. They helped to pick me up.It’s taken me a long time to get fit, maybe because I’m 52. It’s been a grind, and there have been a few times when I got disgusted with running a lot of seconds. But I just tell myself how much I’ve had to dedicate to get where I am right now. When I started galloping for Dale Romans at Churchill, I was getting on 10 or 11 in the mornings, coming down from 152 pounds, so it was tough, but I was enjoying it.
I rode in that race for retired jockeys at Arlington and didn’t do any good, but that was my platform on my comeback. It’s been slow, but it’s been good. Tom Proctor’s been really good to me since I’ve been back. He told me ‘take it easy, take it easy, it’s going to come.’ Like with Dale Romans, I’ve got a real good relationship with Tom outside of racing, so if he’s got something on his mind he lets me know, and the same for me.
Getting the George Woolf Award was my biggest accomplishment. I never even dreamed it was possible because it is so prestigious, and knowing my peers voted for me made it even more meaningful. I was riding in Chicago the summer when Katrina hit, and myself and a couple of other riders were torn up seeing the devastation in our state and not being able to do anything about it.
We decided we were going to start collections for the victims, and I organized our relief efforts at Arlington Park – food, money, clothing for all the little kids. A lot of what we did was just horsemen helping horsemen. My mother, who passed away in October, did a lot of relief work back home through the Catholic Church. When we got everything together in Chicago, I drove the truck to Louisiana and helped distribute the supplies.
To get an award like the George Woolf for doing something you believe in, it was cool and it helped out a whole lot. But it was doing something for the people I felt for. I would have done it for others as well.
I’d shipped in here to Tampa Bay Downs a few times in past years and won some races. In 2003, I won the Florida Oaks for George Steinbrenner and Billy Mott on a filly named Ebony Breeze. But I’d never been here before for an extended stay. I really love it – it’s laid-back, the weather is beautiful and I play golf with my friends here.
It’s a strong jockey colony. There are a lot of seasoned riders here like Ronnie Allen Jr., Jesse Garcia, now we have Scott Spieth here. Leandro (Goncalves) is a good rider and Willie (Martinez) will get the job done. Rosemary (Homeister Jr.) is always competitive, always consistent. Pablo Morales, I admire his style. I think he is going to be an up-and-coming rider.
Just like anywhere else, there are going to be a few riders who aren’t bad, they just aren’t seasoned. Some older riders don’t take the time to talk to the younger jockeys and try to make them better, but if I see a young kid needs a couple of things straightened out, I’m quick to do it. If I’m riding with him, I’m going to keep him aware of his mistakes to make it safer for myself and the rest of the riders. You want to ride safely. That’s No. 1.
My hat is off to all the trainers. That is probably the hardest gig they got on the backside. Dealing with the owners, the help, getting paid on time so they can pay everybody else. I won about 30 races training, but I found out it’s just really, really tough. Sometimes when I was riding and I’d get beat for third, I didn’t really think too much about it, but I found out for the trainers that could be a guy’s only percentage for the month. I’ve got a whole different outlook on the training part of it now.
I’m getting inducted this summer into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which is a big thrill. People always ask me why so many top jockeys seem to come from Louisiana. Well, in my era and with the guys older than me – Eddie D. (Delahoussaye), Randy Romero, Craig Perret, Ray Sibille, Ronald Ardoin – we had so many opportunities.
I was riding show horses when I was 4, so being on a horse was just natural. We didn’t have no bicycles. We just rode our horses in the ditch wherever we wanted to go, so it was pretty cool. It was a great, great upbringing.
I really miss those days. We had six or seven bush tracks running on any given Sunday. Heck, I was riding match races when I was 9 and anything went. My momma didn’t want me to ride, so we didn’t tell her. She didn’t know about it until I broke my wrist when I was 10 ½. I walked through the door holding my wrist, and my dad had to tell her. I’ve got five sisters and I was the only son, so momma kind of babied me, God bless her.
But the big thing was, we had a whole lot of chances. And horsemen didn’t just put you up on a horse right away. You learned the game first. You cleaned the stalls, put on the wraps, did everything to get the horse ready. They taught you to be a horseman first and a jockey second, and that helped all of us tremendously. That training helped a young jockey in knowing where a young horse was hurting or whatever, because we had been riding five or six years already.
I’ve ridden a lot of great horses in my career – Black Tie Affair, Buck’s Boy, Perfect Drift, Balto Star, Roses in May, Offlee Wild, Meafara, Buzzard’s Bay – the list goes on and on. I rode my 5,000th winner for D. Wayne Lukas. I tell you what, he’s one of the biggest motivators you’ll find. You’d be on one of his horses that was 30-1, didn’t fit a race whatsoever and he’d tell you ‘This horse is doing so good,’ you’d leave his barn knowing there was no way you were going to get beat.
My biggest win might have been in the Kentucky Oaks in 2006 for Dallas Stewart. It was near the end of my career – OK, the first end of my career – and I won on Lemons Forever, who was 47-1.
But I think the biggest race I won, because it came at such a great time, was on Buzzards Bay in the 2005 Santa Anita Derby for Jeff Mullins. A few months earlier, a bunch of riders had stood up in Kentucky because we believed our insurance policy was inadequate. Tony D’Amico had been hurt in a spill, and he reached the $100,000 policy limit in about four days. A few of us said, that’s not right, and we chose not to accept mounts at Churchill. At that point, we were ejected from the track.
To make a long story short, I went to California to ride for Mullins, and the first three or four weeks everything went good. Then Pat Valenzuela came back and took a lot of my horses, but I was still riding Buzzards Bay. I won the Golden Gate Derby on him, then we won the Santa Anita Derby at 30-1.
To have that opportunity, to me, was huge. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed in Kentucky. Then, the very next spring I’m back at Churchill and winning the Oaks with Lemons Forever. I guess it proves everything comes full circle and – I know it’s a bad pun – when you get lemons, you should make lemonade.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dick Toda, Director of Food Services

From the Shrimp & Lobster Pasta in the Skye Terrace to the chicken wings in the Sports Gallery, Dick Toda is the point man for culinary delights that dull the pain of a photo finish beat at Tampa Bay Downs. Since joining the track as Director of Food Services in 1996, Toda has focused on dining quality. His philosophy is that no racetrack visitor, from the $2 bettor to the millionaire owner, should have to stop on their way to the track for a good meal. In his first two years, the Skye Terrace kitchen was completely rebuilt and the Sports Gallery underwent a massive overhaul. Continual upgrades have solidified the track’s reputation for haute cuisine and given Toda a cult following among food connoisseurs. Dick and Lucille Toda have been married 35 years and have five children: Rene, Richard, Michael, Lisa and Michelle, and six grandchildren.
When somebody comes up to me and says ‘I just had the greatest meal here,’ I get a high from that. Food is a delicate thing. You are never going to please everybody, and sometimes it is just a matter of taste. But we set our standards here as high as possible. If something is not right, we are not going to sell it.
I don’t know if I’ve been lucky or good, but I’m fortunate to have the nucleus of people we possess. My assistant, Roger Inman, moved here from Las Vegas with a background in food management and hospitality service. The rest of my team has been with me since I arrived. They are all very dedicated and do their jobs well.
My executive chef, Bob Schwertz, was with the Clearwater Hilton for a time. Cliff Adams, Bob’s first assistant, coordinates all the parties. I have a great Maitre d’ in the Skye Terrace, Pam Satory, who is very good about remembering people’s names. Keith Frank is my commissary person. It is his responsibility to see the stands get their needed supplies every day.
On a big day, we could have six or eight parties going on at any time – from the pavilion to the garden area, upstairs and downstairs in both buildings. It is work, but it is a lot of fun. We meet at least once a week to touch base, and we keep a lot of records. If we have a large function, we want to know how we handled it the last time so we can strive to do it even better.
Sometimes patrons suggest something that needs changing, and I have to take that with the compliments. We send out survey review sheets to all our group sales parties so that when they are returned, we can tell what kind of job we are doing. We work hard at the hospitality end of things. In the Skye Terrace, our entire wait staff is in tuxedo wear, with linen on the table and stainless-steel flatware.
I’ve been a friend of Mrs. (Stella) Thayer (owner of Tampa Bay Downs) for 30 years. She used to eat at our Ole Style Deli restaurant a lot, and we would talk about the horses. She would always give me a yearly pass, and I made a habit of coming to the races just about every Saturday. When she decided to hire me, I made a lot of changes, which were all for the betterment of the food and beverage service.
I brought in Nathan’s Hot Dogs, arguably the best on the market, and Boar’s Head meats. We put in some fun places, like the center of the grandstand, where we have cappuccinos and sell fresh pastries. Matt and Tanya’s Ice Cream is the best available because it is made fresh and delivered that week.
I believe when you get a sandwich here, you should thoroughly enjoy it. We have a very nice menu in the Skye Terrace, which is medium-priced and offers excellent food. We have some items in the Sports Gallery and Silks Poker Room you aren’t going to find anyplace else.
Our Sunday brunches have become very popular. They attract sort of a different crowd. We will put our brunch spread up against anybody else. We make omelets and everything else to order, and it is all prepared here at the track. Kim, our baker, has quite a reputation for the sweets she makes.
People love to talk about food, but we also sell a lot of coffee throughout the track, especially during the winter. We sell Colombian coffee, which is a little more expensive, but again our goal is to provide the best.
I used to own some horses with a group in the 1980s, and I owned some with Mr. (George) Steinbrenner when he was a regular here. It was fun to watch my horses run, but the expenses were always greater than the profits. I think maybe I needed better luck or better skill – or deeper pockets!
About 10 or 11 years ago, I flew with George in his Lear jet to watch his filly, Dream Supreme, run at Saratoga. It was a very festive mood going up. We listened to Frank Sinatra, enjoyed fresh rolls and fruit and were literally on Cloud 9.
But after she lost, things were totally different. His personality could change very quickly. As everyone knows, he was a very good winner, but he didn’t like losing.
George would call me three or four times a week and bounce different things off me, get my advice on trainers and jockeys. He actually gave me some voice in his organization. He would ask me about ballplayers, and we would talk about life. He had a lot more good about him than bad. There was a side to him that was very giving.
My late father owned a few riding horses in our hometown of Warren, Ohio, and when I was younger, I thought about becoming a jockey. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was too big. Since I left college at Youngstown State, I’ve been in food.
We had the rights to seven Southern cities for Arby’s. I thought I was going to be the next millionaire, but the franchisor imploded. I took a job in Detroit heading up a chain of supermarkets, but Lucille and I still hated the cold, so we came here for good and opened the Ole Style Deli.
Lucille still works at the restaurant in downtown Tampa that we’ve owned for more than 30 years. She cooks hot meals there every day, things like meatloaf and lasagna. Lucille has always told me that you should do everything as well as you can. Any time I’ve thought I can’t, she has been there to reaffirm ‘Yes, you can.’ She would never allow me not to do my best and has always been my inspiration.
On my days off, I love cooking gourmet meals for Lucille. Mediterranean foods are my specialties, all the foods of France and Italy. I’ll prepare lamb a lot of different ways, and I’ll usually make a Greek salad to go with it. The vegetable usually is whatever is fresh at the produce market.
I played tennis as an amateur, and I’ve been to Wimbledon, Roland Garros in France and to the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y. several times. At home, I enjoy playing the piano. Lucille and I are members of Cheval Golf & Country Club, and I try to play golf once a week.
I’m also on the board of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division, and we do the food service for their big fundraising day every February.
Back in Ohio, my father and several of my uncles had a very unusual hobby: they were pigeon racers. Most people wouldn’t know that a pigeon race can have a purse of $100,000, more than a lot of horse races. I would help to feed them and clean their coops. They are no different than horses in that sense – you have to keep their environment clean and train them.
That was an interesting part of my life. The people who raced pigeons could be bank presidents, or a bank robber just out of prison. The only commonality was the birds and whose were fastest.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Brian Moore, Instuctor at the Downs Golf Practice Facility

Tampa Bay Downs’ quest to stand at the forefront of the multidimensional leisure and entertainment market is reflected by today’s blogger, PGA Class A professional Brian Moore. The 38-year-old Moore is the newest member of the Downs Golf Practice Facility staff, bringing with him more than 10 years of teaching experience. Moore is a former Master Instructor at the Jim McLean Golf School at Doral Golf Resort & Spa in south Florida. He recently worked in Hilton Head, S.C. as Director of Instruction at The Junior Players Golf Academy, which is designed to prepare students for collegiate golf. Moore spent about a year teaching at the Professional Golfers Career College and Golf Digest Schools in Orlando. As a player, he won the PGA of America Hilton Head Chapter Championship two years ago.

There are not many places I know where you can practice golf, then come into the shop and watch and wager on live horse racing. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to place a bet, but there is one guy who comes here and seems to do pretty well, and he has taken the time to try to explain the racing program to me.
It still looks like a Greek dictionary to me, though, so I believe I’m going to proceed with caution. I don’t think you become an expert horse handicapper in one day. It’s sort of like golf – it becomes a full-time hobby, not something you pick up just once in a while.
My dream is to create a regional  learning center for the best young players in the area to come and get top instruction.  This whole Tampa Bay area is sort of an untapped market. There are not any fantastic learning centers here where leading juniors congregate, like in Orlando.
(Fellow instructor) Matt Mitchell and I have spoken about the idea of creating such a center for the top area high school players here at the Downs. We’ve got a great range and putting green and a couple of excellent short-game areas. Other than a golf course, I think we’ve got it all.
Everybody has a dream growing up. For me – like most little kids who take up golf – I wanted to play on the PGA Tour. I had a pretty good high school career in Birmingham, Mich., and I came down here and played at St. Petersburg Junior College for one semester. But I decided school wasn’t for me, so I started playing the mini-tours in 1993.
I guess I did reasonably well in stretches.  I won a couple of one-day Tommy Armour Tour events, which is not saying much. You could say my playing career started off very mediocre and tapered off from there.
When I reached my 24th birthday, my dad – who is a retired brain surgeon – said ‘You know, this tour thing is a great plan, but what happens if you don’t make it? What’s your backup plan?’ It sounds funny now, but the thought of not making it had never crossed my mind. My dad said he would continue to sponsor me, but only if he felt I was doing the right things. He also said he thought it would be a good idea if I took the steps necessary to become a PGA of America member.
I just never really got good enough to play on tour, but it has almost been a blessing in disguise. It has allowed me to ask ‘Why?’ and go back and analyze what I didn’t do. By not making it, I became more curious about what it takes to excel.
I quit playing the mini-tours at the end of 1997 and went to work in the business. My first job was in 1998 in the cart barn at Wyndemere, a private club in Naples. Next, I started working in golf shops as an assistant pro, but I didn’t like answering the telephone 6,000 times a day and folding shirts. I realized then that teaching was going to be my thing. I just wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get there.
I started traveling and asked several top instructors if it was OK to watch them teach. Most of them were very receptive. I took notes and when they finished, I asked lots of questions. It turned out to be a good way to get a first-hand education on how to teach. Lew Smither, who used to run the teaching program at Innisbrook, took me under his wing and let me get close. After a while, I could look into his eyes and know what he was going to say next.
When it comes to teaching golf, there is a lot of stuff I’m still trying to figure out. I try to absorb as much new information as I can. I once heard Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods’ former instructor, say ‘It’s the stuff you learn after you think you know everything that is really important,’ and that really hit home.
Form, to me, is not too important. The ball goes where it goes for a specific reason, and if we can fix the reason it is not going straight, that is what is going to make golfers happy. They are not really interested in making their swings look better if they can hit the ball better.
Swing tips have a shelf life. They work for a while, then they expire. They sort of dry out, and you have to go in a different direction.
Even though golf has been my passion, I played ice hockey avidly until I was 18 and still follow it. I’m into health and fitness and work out regularly. I’m currently single, but at my 20-year high school reunion last August I met a girl I knew from school named Dani. We got to talking, I sent her a text the next day and things have progressed from there, so I could be off the market soon.
When you’re a golf pro, everyone wants to ask about Tiger Woods. Now that he is healthy and has had a chance to work on the things he’s been working on, I think he is going to come back strong. I don’t know if he’ll win a major, but I think he’s going to win a couple tournaments this year.
Women’s professional golf in the United States needs a shot in the arm, and (16-year-old) Lexi Thompson could be the answer. She has been working with Jim McLean since she was a little kid and is exciting to watch. She would be a great ambassador for the game. I’m pulling for her as much as anybody.
Matt Mitchell and Jon Johnson are great guys to work with. We have a relaxed environment, but the best days are when our books are full. The other day I was here from 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. teaching, and I hope to have a lot more 12-hour days.
As an instructor, one of the best things that can happen is when someone says ‘I’m playing so much better. Thanks so much, I never would have figured that out on my own.’ Or when one of their friends comes by and tells me ‘Bob has been playing great lately; I need to see if you can help me, too.’ Those kind of testimonials make my day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Willie Martinez, Jockey

Today’s blogger is jockey Willie Martinez, who has been a familiar face to area fans since setting a Tampa Bay Downs record with 123 victories during the 1991-92 season (the mark stood for 15 years). On Aug. 12 at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., the 40-year-old rider earned career victory No. 3,000 aboard Squeaky Ceci, then delivered one of the best sports quotes of this or any year: “I won my 2,000th in the year 2000 and I was hoping and praying I could win my 3,000th before the year 3000!” Martinez has won a record nine jockey titles at Turfway in Kentucky, and he once rode seven winners at Ellis Park in a single day. He captured the 1997 Keeneland title against the likes of Jerry Bailey and Pat Day. Yet Martinez knows all too well the dangers and unpredictability of his profession. Two weeks after his milestone triumph, he broke his collarbone and four ribs and suffered a punctured lung in a spill at Presque Isle.

I turned 40 in March, but to me that is just a number. I enjoy going to LA Fitness and working out. I try to focus on my cardio more than anything. I don’t care very much about the looks, I just like to stay fit. I do some running and play basketball, but my favorite things are the punching bags, the speed bag and the heavy bag.
I used to do a little bit of boxing training in Puerto Rico when I was younger. I liked the exercises and the programs, and I’m a big fan of kickboxing and boxing. I might try to see if Manny Pacquiao will take a fight with me. He can send me into retirement.
My girlfriend Genevieve and I have been together three and a half years. We are not engaged yet, but we are working toward that. She is the daughter of a jockey, Omar Londono, and she is an exercise rider for Joan Scott Racing Stable and also ponies in the afternoons.
This business can get you really stressed out, but I tell Genevieve when you think you’re having a bad day, it is really just a bad moment. You have the rest of the day to patch it up. We both know when we leave the house there is never a guarantee of us coming back in one piece. So we say our prayers and plan to have a good day and enjoy what is ahead of us. There is always tomorrow.
Everybody deals with things differently, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know how to conduct myself as a professional. Genevieve relates to most of that. I greatly admire how she handles herself. She is known as a good worker and puts a lot of time and passion into what she does.
In 2010, I came pretty close to achieving what every jockey dreams of: winning the Kentucky Derby. It was my fourth Derby and I was riding Noble’s Promise for trainer Ken McPeek. I knew in my heart Noble’s Promise was more of a miler and the mile-and-a-quarter was probably a bit too much to ask, but I had won the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity on him as a 2-year-old and we finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so he was deserving of a shot.
Around the middle of the backside, I started thinking this might be possible. He was in the race without being asked. I knew the buttons I needed to push. I was very comfortable where I was. Then, at the three-eighths pole, I was getting excited, and all I could do in my head was try to block out the noise from the crowd, because I knew as soon as we turned for home the crowd can get the best or the worst out of you in a race like that.
Turning for home, I knew this was my best shot out of all my Derby mounts. Then, just as I was switching my goggles – it was very muddy that day – Calvin Borel (aboard Super Saver) came sneaking up the fence. Before I knew it, he was already there and on his way. Noble’s Promise finished fifth, but it was a great effort on his part.
Mike Moran, who was once a leading rider here, is my agent this year. He has me and Pablo Morales, and the three of us get along fine. I’m a fan of Pablo. He’s 23 and not even close to his prime, but he has such a bright future ahead of him. I try to stay on his butt if I see something that I know he can fix. He is his own man and his own rider, and I hope he finds his own path to success.
The big thing I try to impress upon Pablo is to present himself the right way with people and to communicate with them, because jockeys have to connect with the person who is going to pay your bills.
That being said, the No. 1 thing I tell any young rider is to never forget that our sport is all about the horse. They are the biggest stars. Our names are on the programs and our faces are on TV, but if it wasn’t for the horses, we wouldn’t leave the paddock. As a rider, you have to be a good passenger and that horse has to be a good pilot.
My main goal when I was a young rider was buying my mom a house and bringing my sister and my brother and my niece here from Puerto Rico, and I did all that. Everything that came after that was just a plus. My sister lives in Kentucky now and is a general manager at a bank, and my brother is in music and dancing and entertainment. He’s been a backup dancer for the Black Eyed Peas and travels the world doing what he loves.
My mom is my biggest inspiration and motivation. She raised three kids as a single parent working two jobs. We never had a whole lot, but we always had enough to get by, and she made sure there was food for us and that we had clean clothes and brand new shoes.
My mom is 5-feet-3 and weighs 105 pounds, about my size. It is hard to believe, when you look at her, that she was an undercover narcotics agent in Puerto Rico and Policewoman of the Year two years in a row. To be able to do all that, to me, was amazing. She is an incredible human being. I built her a home 20 years ago before I left to go ride in Kentucky and she lives in the area.
My parents split up when I was 11. My father had his demons, but I like to look at the best of everyone. When he was 13, he lost both his parents and had to provide for all the others. He started laying bricks and tile and became a builder. You think you have it rough, try to support your family when you are 13. He was a handyman and later became a scuba diving instructor.
He was also my biggest fan and encouraged me to become a jockey. Just because he wasn’t a good husband doesn’t mean he isn’t a good dad and a great man.
The racetrack is a very supportive environment, and I have been very fortunate to have met many wonderful people who helped me along. At Finger Lakes in New York when I was just getting started, I became friends with a groom who would tack me up and help me sneak onto the training track at 4:30 a.m. One day, though, the horse I was riding got loose and it turned into a big mess. The outriders were on their way to open up the training track and all they could see was a loose horse and me walking out of there, all dirty. They kicked me out of the track.
I was young, and I said ‘OK, I never wanted to be a jockey, anyway.’ But soon after, I met a wonderful person, a jockey named Jose Rivera II, who was pretty much my savior. He is the one who put the blueprint in front of me, who told me ‘I can tell that you are going to be good.’ He made me believe in myself , and he helped me find a farm where I could break babies and get more involved with horses. That was the understanding I needed to get with it, and within six months I was riding races.
(Tampa Bay Downs steward) Charlie Miranda is another big influence. He is my mentor and the dad I never had at the track. Jose has been my big brother.
There are a handful of people who claim to have put me on my very first winner. Officially, though, I broke my maiden on a filly named La Glace for trainer Bill Noriega. But before that, I actually won two races here at Tampa Bay Downs and got disqualified twice. The second time, I looked at Charlie Miranda like ‘If you want to take my number down again, fine, but still pay me, because I’m broke!’
When I finally did it, Richard Grunder, the track announcer, said ‘And this one is going to count for Martinez’ because I led at every pole.
I was in the hospital for five or six days after I went down at Presque Isle last summer. They put a tube in my lung to drain it and make sure it wasn’t leaking. For a week or so, it was rough going, but after that I had a quick recovery and within 26 days, I was back riding. Mary Bennett, Gerald Bennett’s wife, helped me recover. I would spend 40 minutes at the barn every morning using the infrared laser machine they have for the horses, and within a week I could feel a big difference in how quick I was healing.
That very first spill a jockey takes separates you from being a little boy to a man, right off the bat. When you wake up in an ambulance and your collarbone is over here and there is blood all over, you can’t describe it. It’s like being a boxer – no matter what way you look at it, you’re going to hit that ground sooner or later.
After it happens a few times, you start thinking, is this what I really want to do? Then you realize this is what comes with it. This is what I signed up for.
I’ve ridden with the best and I have accomplished things that were beyond my imagination before I started. Just to ride in four Kentucky Derbies and to be able to go and ride in the Dubai World Cup (second in 2006, aboard Brass Hat). … I have won quite a few stakes, and in those kind of races I always find a way to shine somehow. God has blessed me in a lot of ways.