Sam Davis was seated at his usual table in the front row of the Skye Terrace at Florida Downs racetrack in Oldsmar, Fla. as a field of 10 paraded to the post for the first race. Davis, 65, is a large, pleasant, outspoken man who in 1933 was captain and quarterback of the University of Florida football team and, a little over a year ago, began operating a racetrack for the first time, running it, furthermore, with remarkable success.
"I never imagined that I would be doing this," Davis said as he examined the horses. "I figured I would be spending this part of my life following my own horses around or just traveling. A year ago I didn't know a darned thing about running a track. I'm not sure, in fact, that I do even now." But owners who race their animals at Florida Downs feel strongly that Sam knows more than he lets on.
On the wall behind the desk in Davis' office, where he spends as little time as possible, is an impressive collection of awards given him for service to the city of Tampa. For 22 years he operated the prosperous Tampa Ship Repair and Dry-dock Co., which he sold to New York Yankee Owner George Steinbrenner III in 1972 for $2.5 million. None of the awards means as much to Davis, however, as a purple-and-black plaque he received last March from local horsemen in appreciation for keeping attendance up and money coming in.
Of the 150 thoroughbred race meetings conducted in North America in 1973, only a handful showed advances in attendance and wagering greater than those at Florida Downs in Davis' first season as both its president and general manager. Patronage rose 14.8% and betting 25.9% at a time when close to half the tracks saw their crowds drop off and almost 20% showed declines in mutuel play. With the 1974 meeting now nearing its final week, attendance is up another 6.8% despite gasoline shortages and tight money.
Florida Downs is certainly not Aqueduct or Santa Anita. It is not even Bowie. It is, in fact, more on a level with Assiniboia Downs near Winnipeg or Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis, Ill., where the average patronage is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 a day and the betting in the $300,000 range. The track is located on the west coast of the state, within easy driving distance of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Covering 475 acres, it has more property on which to expand than any other racetrack in the country.
"In time," says Davis, "I hope to make this the best small track in the United States." And he is stubborn enough to see that hope fulfilled. He was born on a farm in Smyrna, Tenn., about 20 miles from Nashville in the heart of mule country. "I came to know mules at a tender age," Davis says, "and I do not deny that perhaps some of their personality and characteristics may have rubbed off on me."
Matt Wynn, the man who put Churchill Downs on the map, built the forerunner of Florida Downs in 1924. It was called Tampa Downs and, despite local ordinances that forbade betting, managed to conduct a meeting. But the track did not reopen the following year, and only one regular meeting was held in the next 23 years.
In 1947 it came back to life as Sunshine Park, quickly earning such varied pseudonyms as "Cottonmouth Downs" (because snakes slithered along the back-stretch) and "Shoeshine Park" (because a patron needed one upon leaving). Little national attention was paid to Sunshine in its first season for about a thousand other reasons.
When the track did receive some publicity in its second year, it was for undesirable reasons. Mutuel play dropped to $77,000 a day and the purses were twice cut. Any time purses are lowered, oldtimers hold, thieves get to work as swiftly as vampires react to sunset. While Sunshine Park did not capitulate, it was in serious trouble, and it seemed to change ownership annually. Voodoo stalked the place. One year a water-skiing exhibition was started in the infield and the first time out the boats sank. Intrigue was rampant; twice the track was bombed, one charge exploding under the stairs leading to the jockeys' room.
Two personalities, however, helped bring some sunshine to Sunshine. Apprentice Tony DeSpirito, who in his early days rode like a desperado, pumped home his first winner at Sunshine in January 1952 and went on to break the all-time record for victories in a season, held for 46 years by Walter Miller. When DeSpirito finished his year at Sunshine by riding his 389th winner, he announced he was sending his share of the purse, $50, to Miller, who was seriously ill.