St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Derby Lane ready for early opening

With a new president, the track begins a longer season Monday, three weeks ahead of schedule.

BOB PUTNAM
Published December 7, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - At a board meeting in June, Art Weaver retired as president of Derby Lane after 23 years. His son, Vey O. Weaver, was promoted to take his place, adding president to his general manager title.

With the leadership baton being passed from one generation to the next at the family-owned business, few expected wholesale changes at the country's oldest continuously operated dog track.

But there will be one noticeable difference when the track opens its six-month live schedule on Monday.

Derby Lane's 79th season is three weeks ahead of schedule. The change marks the first time the track will race dogs in December since 1954.

Weaver, 48, made the move after meeting with officials from Tampa Greyhound this summer and agreeing to swap dates. Normally, Derby Lane opens Jan. 2 and closes June 30. Tampa Greyhound runs July through December.

By bumping up the start of the season, Derby Lane will end its season on June 19.

The adjustment added two more weeks to Derby Lane's live racing schedule, but Weaver said the motive was not to compensate for a less-than-steller performance last season when the track closed for two weeks in March after an outbreak of kennel cough spread to more than 300 greyhounds and an upper respiratory illness killed two others.

Derby Lane, one of the largest tax-paying parimutuels in the state, reported a loss of about $200,000 per week in state revenues last season. The track tried to make up for 21 performances that were lost by adding Friday matinee races, but it was not enough.

On-track wagering was $120-million, down 18 percent from 2002 ($140-million). There also was a 16 percent drop in attendance.

With the extra dates, Friday matinees are eliminated. The new racing schedule is on a trial basis, but Weaver said he wants to keep it to accommodate tourists who flock to the area this time of year.

"Our track is in St. Petersburg and is close to the beaches," Weaver said. "We wanted to take advantage of that. This is something that just made sense."

Hillary Fellenz, director of marketing for Tampa Greyhound, agreed. She said the Tampa track usually reports a steady decline in attendance and revenue around the holidays.

"We're more of a neighborhood track," Fellenz said. "We do much better in the summer, so we were fine giving up these dates.

"I know the employees are happy. It's the first time they've had holidays off in a long, long time."

That's not the case at Derby Lane. The track will offer matinee races Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

"It's definitely an adjustment," Derby Lane public relations director Vera Filipelli said.

"I'm going to have to do my shopping on the Internet this year. But I think this will be a good thing."

Another potential boost for Derby Lane could come from T.L.'s card room. A new law eliminated the $10 per game pot limit and replaced it with a $2 bet limit and a maximum of three raises per round. Filipelli expected the law to attract more players and said the track expanded its room to 25 tables. The card room's new hours are noon to midnight Monday-Saturday.

Other changes this season include the post time for evening races moved from 7:30 to 7, the Tri-Super wager moved to Races 5 and 7 and the Twin-Tri moved to Races 11 and 13.

Qualifying rounds for the Puppy Preview and St. Petersburg Inaugural, the two biggest stake races at the start of the season, will start Wednesday. The final for each will be Saturday.

DERBY LANE

WHAT: 79th season.

WHEN: The season opens Monday. Evening races are Monday-Saturday. Gates open at 6. Races start at 7. Matinee races are Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Gates open at 11:30 a.m., races at 12:30 p.m.

WHERE: 10490 Gandy Blvd. N, St. Petersburg.

ADMISSION: Free admission Monday to Saturday. General admission $1. Children 17 or younger are free with an adult. Tuesday night is free admission. Parking is free.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.