Florida Horse Racing

Although Florida is home to nearly all breeds of horses, Thoroughbreds outnumber all the others. In fact, Ocala, located in North Central Florida, breeds an impressive 3,500 to 5,000 Thoroughbred race horses each year.

Of course, that is only about 10 percent of the nation's total, but enough for Ocala to bill itself as the Horse Capital of the World.

Unless you follow the Thoroughbred horse racing industry closely, many are not aware that Florida also boasts Thoroughbred horse racing tracks — Calder Race Course, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs. In fact, Calder Race Course kicks off the road to the Kentucky Derby on January 1 with the first derby of the year — Gr-III Tropical Park Derby. Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs also pave the Road to the Roses with graded stakes over the first few months of every year.

I can remember my first day at the now 80-year-old Tampa Bay Downs like it was yesterday, but it was actually a lifetime ago. Through a series of remarkable events, this former church secretary found herself editing a small horse racing digest — Wire to Wire, a local Ocala publication that covered the Thoroughbred racing industry and provided daily track results from all over the country. My trip to Tampa Bay Downs was sponsored by my boss, the owner of the publication. The day trip was intended to not only give me some hands-on experience in the industry, but provide a day of entertainment. It effectively did both.

Setting in the club house overlooking the race course, we could see the horses entering the track for the post parade to the starting gate. As the horses pranced, I glanced nervously at the Daily Racing Form in my hand. It wasn't the first time I had held one, but it would be the first time I would use the information it provides to place a wager — my very first bet. Later, I clutched my ticket as the bell rang and the starting gate sprung open. I couldn't help but get caught up in the excitement and I cheered my horse all the way to the wire. Amazingly, my horse won! It had to be beginners luck, but, win or lose, the day was an experience I'll never forget.

So, if you want to get on track for an unforgettable experience, my suggestion for a sure bet would be to spend the day, or a part of the day, at a race track. And, in case you are wondering, the tracks are family-friendly and can even be educational for the kids.

Calder Race Course - Miami

Calder Race Course was purchased by Churchill Downs in April, 1999. The track recently celebrated 35 years of racing history. The facilities were remodeled about 10 years ago and include several dining options besides the usual concessions.

Calder offers a unique free Junior Jockey Club for children age 15 or younger. Kids receive a free monthly newsletter highlighting club activities and upcoming events. The program educates young people about horses and the racing industry through hands-on activities held on Family Days, which are held from noon to 5:00 p.m. in the Picnic Grove. Family Days are free... even to any adult bringing a kid!

Calder also offers simulcasting and a card room. The park is conveniently located at 21001 N.W. 27th Avenue in Miami, which is just 10 to 15 miles from Downtown Miami and South Beach.

Gulfstream Park - Hallandale

Gulfstream Park is just completing a major renovation project that brings the facility up-to-date with state-of-the-art amenities and continues its world-class Thoroughbred racing legacy. The new facilities will boast four spectacular restaurants and plenty of accommodations for every level player.

The park also offers simulcasting and a card room. Gulfstream Park is located at 901 S. Federal Highway in Hallandale which is between North Miami Beach and Hollwood.

Tampa Bay Downs - Oldsmar

Tampa Bay Downs opened in 1926 under the name Tampa Downs, but went through several name changes and overcame a string of difficult years to gain the success it enjoys today.

The grandstand is covered and the amenities are adequate, but not luxurious. The Silks Card Room was recently remodeled and features nine different types of live-action games. Simulcasting is also offered.

Tampa Bay Downs is located just west of Tampa, on Race Track Road in Oldmar.
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