Sunday, April 28, 2013

Linda Scocca, Silks

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their
favorite sport

Among Thoroughbred racing’s hierarchy, women were still viewed as second-class citizens on the backside when horse-loving teenager Linda Keelan arrived at Hazel Park outside Detroit in 1969. Female trainers were few and far between, and it had been only a few months since Diane Crump made history at Hialeah as the first woman jockey in North America. “You might have seen a few women then galloping horses or walking hots, but mostly they were working in the shedrow,” recalls Linda, the daughter of a coal miner and blacksmith, Avery Mullins. Linda went to work for trainer Clyde Crandwell, who figured she would be a no-show when he told her to report for duty at 3:45 a.m. But Crandwell’s job offer represented her window to a lifetime in Thoroughbred racing, and she has been keeping track hours ever since. “I had quit school when I was 15 and had two daughters before I was 18, and I can’t recommend that to anyone,” Linda says. “But for me, horse racing has always been a passion. Not one day in my life did I ever get up and think I had to go to work.” Linda started ponying horses to the track at Hazel Park and Detroit Race Course in 1972; five years later, she passed her trainer’s test at Finger Lakes in New York on “one of the happiest days of my life.” That same summer, she won her first race with a Michigan-bred mare named Mylette. Training anywhere from 5-to-17 horses at a time, Linda won races at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream, Finger Lakes, Detroit, Thistledown, Mountaineer Park, Canterbury and Rockingham. “I never had a lot of owners,” she says. “Sometimes people would owe me money, so they would give me a racehorse and I’d patch it up and win with it.” In 1982, Linda married jockey Danny Scocca; they were together 16 years. When Linda became a jockey’s agent, Scocca was her first client. Over the course of 11 years, she also “hustled book” for Ronnie Allen, Jr., Ricardo Lopez, Bennie Feliciano, Heriberto Rivera, Jr., and Gary Bain. Linda, who sold her High Hopes Thoroughbred farm in Brooksville last year, has been in charge of the silks in the jockeys’ room at Tampa Bay Downs since 2008. At any one time, she might be juggling more than 350 pairs of colors, between laying out that day’s silks, preparing the next day’s sets and laundering. She also ponies horses in the morning, often working for trainer Kathleen O’Connell, who was galloping horses at the Michigan tracks at the same time Linda was getting her start. Linda will head to Colonial Downs in Virginia when the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs meet ends to work as a pony rider. In addition to her two grown daughters, Linda has a grandson and a great-grandson.



HOMETOWN: Clintwood, Va.

BEST HORSES I’VE EVER SEEN/TRAINED: I got to see Secretariat win the Arlington Invitational in person and I watched Cigar win the 1995 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. Ruffian and Seattle Slew also fell into that category; it was breathtaking to watch those horses run. Courtmate was probably the best horse I trained. He wasn’t much, but he paid me and my girls just about every time he ran.

HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: After we watched Northern Dancer win the 1964 Kentucky Derby on TV, I told my father I would be the first woman to win the race. He told me ‘Well, it’s not a game for women,’ but I knew I was going to train racehorses.

MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My dad, Avery Mullins. When I was growing up in Virginia, I took out a horse I wasn’t supposed to be riding, and he went over the side of a mountain. We had to cut the saddle off with a butcher knife so he could breathe normally and drag him back up the side of the mountain with a bulldozer. I was scared, but when my father got home he said ‘Young lady, if you want to ride, you go ride.’ He always told me I could do anything I put my mind to.

ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Establish uniform medication rules across the board, or allow no medication use at all.

MY FAVORITE ATHLETE: Johnny Longden, the late Hall of Fame jockey. I used to have an art store, and he sent me autographed items and also got me started growing orchids.

NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: I’d like to go trail-riding out west and see states like Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

FAVORITE MOVIE: Phar Lap, about the great Australian champion Thoroughbred.

WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … If I had more time, I’d complete the memoir I’ve been working on the past 30 years.

FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The sunshine, the location, a kind dirt course and a very good turf course.

ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Have a love for the game and a lot of patience, and don’t count on the horse winning to pay your bills.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

John Soos, Devoted Fan

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their
favorite sport.

A fixture at Tampa Bay Downs since moving to Florida with his late wife Vivian in 1985, 96-year-old John Soos finds a day at the races a way to stay active and keep his mind sharp. “I’m not a big bettor, but I dance every dance,” Soos says. “That’s dumb, but I rationalize it by telling myself it’s just a couple of bucks, and I can’t hurt anyone but me.” As a U.S. Naval Radar Operator, John Soos spent the latter days of World War II in the south Pacific aboard the USS LSM-420, an amphibious assault and transport ship sent in after the Battle of Okinawa to evacuate a Sea Bee base. During his watch, the ship was part of a convoy that got caught in a typhoon, with 150-foot swells making it feel as if he was being lifted to a mountaintop and dropped to a valley floor. While anchored in Okinawa Harbor, the crew of the LSM-420 watched U.S. warplanes dive-bomb the island, an experience Soos compared to watching a movie. When a Japanese suicide plane flew overhead, U.S. ships opened fire, shooting the plane from the sky but also resulting in U.S. casualties from friendly fire. Days later at Saipan, with the end of the war in sight, Soos watched flares from the American fleet light up the night sky. “The greatest fireworks display of my life,” he later wrote. It wasn’t until January of 1946 when Soos arrived home in Bridgman, Michigan, to be reunited with Vivian and their 5-year-old son, John Soos III. Soos returned to work with the Nineteen Hundred Corporation, which later became Whirlpool. Soos, an assembly inspector, quickly became active in labor negotiations, but he never considered himself strictly a union or a company man; it was the issue that needed to be grasped and debated, above common politics. In 1949, Soos and four fellow workers pitched in $5 each to form the Nineteen Hundred Employees Federal Credit Union in St. Joseph, Mich., giving workers back from the war the ability to secure loans for down payments on homes. Soos served as the President of the Credit Union until he left Whirlpool in 1960. The Sooses briefly owned a golf course and bowling center called Bowling Green Lanes and Country Club in Bridgman before he became a licensed insurance agent in St. Joseph for Wayne National. For a brief time, he was part-owner of the Twin City Sailors, a pro basketball team featuring 1963 NCAA champion Loyola of Chicago stars Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter and Johnny Egan. Around that time, Soos started getting interested in Thoroughbreds; he and Vivian went to New Orleans in December of 1963, rented an apartment and went to the races at Fair Grounds every day for six weeks. Soos acquired half-ownership of a horse named Royal Opening, which won its first start under his colors before being claimed. When Soos won a convention trip to Hawaii in 1966, he and Vivian spent three days on Maui; he got to play golf with future Hall of Fame baseball stars Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew. Soos also took trips to London, Spain, Las Vegas and Brazil, and calls Rio de Janeiro the most beautiful place he has been. Soos lives six months in Port Richey and six months in Michigan with his companion, Eleanor Wolf. In addition to his son John, he has two grandsons, a great-granddaughter who is studying medicine at the University of Michigan and two great-grandsons.

HOMETOWN: St. Joseph, Mich.

BEST HORSE: I wasn’t a big horse racing fan in my younger days, but I imagine 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet was one of the best ever. His sire, Reigh Count, won the 1928 Kentucky Derby, and Count Fleet sired the 1951 Kentucky Derby winner, Count Turf. I pay close attention to bloodlines. When I see something by Indian Charlie, I know I’m going to get a race out of that horse.

HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: Back in the late 1930s, I was making $10 a week as a bartender. The bread man was a horse player, and I sneaked him 25 cents to make a bet for me. In Benton Harbor, Mich., there was a bookie on the second floor of a hotel, and you would climb up the fire escape to get there. I stayed in the car listening to the races from Arlington on the radio, and I soon realized they were still taking bets after the race was over.

MY BIGGEST INFLUENCE: Elisha “Bud” Gray, who was the Chairman of the Board and President of Whirlpool. He knew everybody by name, from the top dogs down to the janitors. While he was very knowledgeable, his greatest asset was his feel for people.

ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: I don’t know if I am qualified to answer that, but I would like to see more owners and trainers run horses where they belong. They get a cheap claimer and want to win a stakes, but you can’t do it.

MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM/ATHLETE: The Detroit Tigers and their Hall of Fame right fielder, Al Kaline. He won the American League batting title when he was a kid and has always been a down-to-earth man.

NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: I’d like to see my Navy buddies again. There are very few of us left.

FAVORITE TV SHOW/MOVIE: I enjoy Bonanza, because they are trying to do good all the time. My favorite movie is Dave, with Kevin Kline; they should run on every station that leading up to the next election.

WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … More yard work. We have a big oak tree in Michigan that rains down leaves, and I like to keep things looking nice.

FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: There are a lot of really friendly people here, and no one goes around with their nose in the air. And (General Manager) Peter Berube has mellowed a little. He gave me a clubhouse season pass on my last birthday.

ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Make like you’re back in school and don’t try to become an expert overnight. I don’t really come out here to make money; I come to enjoy myself for the day.



Sunday, April 14, 2013

Penelope Miller, America's Best Racing

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their favorite sport

Penelope Miller is thriving in the big city, but she’ll always be a small-town horsewoman at heart. A resident of New York City, the former Tampa Bay Downs Publicity Assistant and Horseman’s Liaison is now the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America’s Best Racing, a fan development platform begun by the Jockey Club. Miller was promoted to her current post less than a year after being hired by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association as its first Social Media Manager. With mainstream media coverage of Thoroughbred racing on the decline and more and more fans interacting through such platforms as Facebook and Twitter, the outgoing, horse-savvy Miller was a natural choice to spearhead the NTRA and Jockey Club’s modern media initiative. The America’s Best Racing program features a fan-centric website (, television coverage of major Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prep races, a redesigned social media presence (including a Pinterest page), online and social games and more. “My job is to introduce as many people as possible to the great sport of horse racing through our website and our various social media channels,” said Miller, a graduate of Georgetown University. Immersed in racing from her childhood, Miller believes younger people will gravitate to horse racing when they learn about the excitement of a driving photo finish, the pageantry of the post parade before a major stakes and the wonder of a foal taking its first wobbly steps after birth. While the Triple Crown watch is a major focus of her job, Miller is also introducing new fans to the tradition and history of racing, the ins and outs of wagering and what to wear to that Kentucky Derby party. Previously an assistant at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, a sales assistant for a Florida breeding farm and a groom and exercise rider, Miller returns to Tampa Bay Downs at least once a season. It’s a chance to renew friendships and take her pal Mouse the Miniature Horse on a refreshing stroll through the Backyard Picnic Area. While she is missed here, track officials know she is the type of representative needed to help restore racing to its former luster.



HOMETOWN: Fairfield, Fla.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER SEEN: Oooh, tough one! Probably the best horse I’ve ever seen run in person is the amazing Holy Bull. I was just a little girl, and he captivated me.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: I was lucky enough to grow up on a Thoroughbred farm near Ocala, so you could say that I drank the horse racing Kool-Aid pretty much from birth.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCE: My parents. They taught me to work hard, to always try my best in everything I do, and to never lose my sense of humor.


ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: I would like to see less negativity in the sport. There is so much to love about horse racing, and so much potential in the next few years to develop a whole new fan base. It would be great to see established racing enthusiasts share their positive experiences in the game with new and potential fans.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM: My parents’ racing stable! If that doesn’t count, my favorite team is definitely the Florida Gators. My neighbors in New York pretty much have to wear earplugs during every Florida football game, since I have the tendency to share encouragement and advice to the players on my TV at extreme volumes.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: I’d love to go to the Dubai World Cup or the races in Hong Kong. Either of those experiences would be amazing.


FAVORITE TV SHOW/MOVIE: Community is my favorite TV show and The House of Yes is my favorite movie. They are both hysterically funny.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I hate to even think about a life outside of racing! But I guess I would probably have ended up in the horse-show world. Once these animals get into your blood, you love them for life.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: Everything! Tampa Bay Downs is my home track; I worked here from 2006 until I began working for America’s Best Racing, so I know that there is a lot to love. But if I had to pick one thing, I would say this is the friendliest racetrack I’ve been to. Everyone from the cleaning staff to the management greets visitors with a smile and takes time out to talk to customers. It’s wonderful.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Have fun! This sport has something for everyone, from young families to college students to retirees. Racing is a great way to spend time outside, watch some amazing athletes and even leave with a little more money than you came with. No matter what you’re interested in, you’ll find something to love at the track. So kick back, relax and have yourself a good time.



Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dennis Lima, Association Steward

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their favorite sport

Integrity is at the essence of Dennis Lima’s involvement with Tampa Bay Downs. With fellow Association Steward John Morrissey and State Steward Charles Miranda, Lima is devoted to adhering to strict standards of racetrack safety and fairness and protecting the public, which wagers its dollars with the understanding they are watching a clean, honest sport. “For me, the most rewarding aspect of this job is when you finish a meet knowing you have done your part to keep it as safe as you can for the horses and the jockeys,” Lima said. “The most important thing is to be as fair and consistent as possible with our rulings and our judgment calls during the races.” From the time his older brother Eddie introduced him to the backside of the racetrack at old Narragansett Park in Pawtucket, R.I., Lima was hooked on the sport. After high school, Lima came to Oldsmar in the winter of 1964, working under trainer Doc Canzano at what was then Sunshine Park. Lima trained a few horses of his own in New England with minimal success, then became an assistant to prominent trainer Ned Allard. Lima was also a jockey agent and later, an owner, for short stints. He next worked as a racing official on the Massachusetts fair circuit, showing enough promise to join racing secretary Bobby DeStasio’s team at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Rockingham in Salem, N.H., as a placing judge, paddock judge and entry clerk. Lima’s big break came in 1987, when DeStasio appointed him as an alternate steward; three years later, he became a full-time steward at Rockingham, working there until the track closed in 2002. The late John Grady, former General Manager at Tampa Bay Downs, hired Lima as an Association Steward in 1993. He is also a State Steward from May through November at Delaware Park, where he started working in 2003. During the races, Tampa Bay stewards have access to a bank of television monitors that display head-on and pan shots, as well as action at various points of a race. If a steward views a possible infraction, they call the camera room for a series of replays before putting their heads together and issuing a verdict. Some of the busiest times come in the mornings, when the stewards handle scratches, conduct hearings and summon jockeys to view videotape from the previous day’s races. “We have an open-door policy for the owners, trainers and jockeys,” Lima said. “There has to be a good rapport there.” Lima has been married 17 years to Celeste, who previously worked in Group Sales at Tampa Bay Downs. He has a son and daughter from a previous marriage.



HOMETOWN: Pawtucket, R.I.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER SEEN: Singling out one is impossible, because I’ve seen so many good ones. I watched Royal Delta win the Delaware Handicap last summer, and have been fortunate to see Barbaro, Afleet Alex, Havre de Grace and Blind Luck. And I’ve watched a lot of great ones here, like (Kentucky Derby winner) Street Sense. Verrazano was very impressive winning the Tampa Bay Derby last month, and hopefully he can continue his success.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: I spent my summers on the racetrack with my brother Eddie when I was in high school, starting as a hotwalker and groom. Just about all my jobs since have been on the racetrack, starting with Narragansett and Lincoln Downs in my home state of Rhode Island.


MY BIGGEST INFLUENCES: Jimmy Pambianchi, who helped me get my first racing official’s job at the Massachusetts fairs, and Bobby DeStasio, the racing secretary at Suffolk who hired me as an alternate steward. Without those opportunities, who knows what I’d be doing now.


ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Establish more uniformity in medication rules and penalties, especially with so many trainers shipping horses from state to state.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAMS/ATHLETES: The New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics. I used to go to a lot of Celtics games during the Larry Bird era. And pound for pound, jockeys are some of the best athletes in the world.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: Visit Portugal, where my late parents were born.


FAVORITE TV SHOWS: Dateline NBC, 20/20 and 48 Hours.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The improvements throughout the track and the well-maintained racing surfaces. (Vice President of Facilities and Track Surfaces) Tom McLaughlin and his crew do an excellent job. Also, the enhancements in the graded-stakes program.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … My initial goal was to try to be a racing secretary, but I’ve never had to cross that bridge (of not working at the track).


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Whatever you choose to do, set your goals and work hard to achieve them.