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Charging from the gate

Tampa Bay Downs' new leader has high hopes for the track - and women in horse racing.

Published November 7, 2006

[Times photo: Justin Cook]
Allison De Luca, who began her job at Tampa Bay Downs on Monday, is one of only two female racing secretaries in the country.

OLDSMAR - It was just her first day as director of racing at Tampa Bay Downs on Monday and Allison De Luca was already making a mark.

Just by showing up, De Luca, 50, became one of just two female leaders among 100 thoroughbred horse racing tracks in the country. As racing secretary, the title given to the track's top executive, De Luca's responsibilities range from setting up stalls for horse owners to making sure that the bets are properly taken. Within hours of taking her post Monday, she was already fielding phone calls from horsemen jockeying for stable positions.

De Luca, who just left her assistant racing secretary position at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., spent a few teenage years in St. Petersburg, but hasn't lived in the Tampa Bay area since attending Boca Ciega High School for a year. She went to the University of Arizona, where she studied political science, worked at horse tracks in seven states and thinks horse tracks shouldn't shy away from advertising the fact that gambling takes place at their venues. Among her observations in her new job:

Why do you think there are so few female racing directors?

When I first started in 1980, there weren't many racing officials. For years, wherever I would go, I was the only woman in the office who was an official. It was a male-dominated sport. That will change. There will be more (racing directors) because there's a lot more women in the office.

What attracted you to the horse racing business?

My grandparents were big horse racing fans. ... When I was a political science major at the University of Arizona, I read about the racing management program and I took those courses, and a student who had graduated and was working at Sportsman's Park (in Illinois) in 1980 told me about a job. That job was previously occupied by a woman. I'm sure they wanted to replace her with a woman. I was in the racing office as the registration clerk.

Is there a professional association that can help women rise in the ranks?

We used to have a professional association and we had health benefits and retirement benefits, and they did away with that in the '90s.

What do you think are the biggest challenges at Tampa Bay Downs? Is it a track on the rise?

I was lucky to land in Tampa. They're very interested in getting people out to the races. A lot of tracks have gone to simulcasting and you don't see anyone at the tracks. (In Tampa), they care very much about the surface of the tracks and the safety of horses and people. Tampa is on the rise.

What do you think the industry can do to market itself better? For a while, tracks were having concerts by '80s groups such as Huey Lewis and the News to appeal to the younger demographic.

The one thing I notice about the casinos is that they don't mind talking about the gambling. I don't see why it's a big secret that there's gambling at the horse track. There are people out there to gamble. You have a way better chance making money on a horse than on a casino.

It's great thing to watch a thoroughbred run, but we have to also educate people about gambling (on horses). ... To me, it's more interesting to watch a horse race than a slot machine. But it does seem the casinos do know how to advertise.

What does the Tampa-Florida market offer you?

You have a lot of retired people. You have a chance to get people who have time on their hands. And No. 1, you have great weather. You can get out there if you don't have to be at work.

What is the future for women in horse racing?

Girls love horses. If you're at a riding stable, there is one boy and 30 girls, and it's amazing that it has taken racing so long to catch up. ... Women are very important in working with the horses. It has to evolve.

Tampa Bay Downs

History: Thoroughbred race track opened in 1926

Employees: About 500

Track owner and president: Stella Thayer

Upcoming season: Dec. 9 to May 6

Changing of the guard: Allison De Luca replaces Tampa Bay Downs director of racing John Morrissey, who resigned after the 2005-06 season

Background: A New York native, De Luca lived in St. Pete Beach and Arizona as a child.

Trendsetter: De Luca joins Georgeanne Hale as the only two female racing secretaries at major thoroughbred tracks. Hale works for Pimlico Race Course in Maryland.

[Last modified November 7, 2006, 06:00:16]

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