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Tampa Bay Downs has happy start for a change

With two years of labor strife mostly over, a new GM focuses on raising stakes at the horse track.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2001

OLDSMAR -- Credit Peter Berube for good timing.

On the past two opening days at Tampa Bay Downs, then-general manager John Grady had to spend as much time sequestered in his office as in owner Stella Thayer's suite or smiling for pictures in the winner's circle.

Protracted labor battles diminished each of those openers, hurting fields, purses, horsemen and ultimately the fans.

Entering his first opener as general manager, Berube should have more time for enjoyment and more reasons to smile.

At 38, the top executive of an improving thoroughbred facility, with another year left on a contract with local horsemen and two graded stakes on the schedule for the first time in the track's 76 years, Berube should be in for some fun when Tampa Bay Down's 93-day live meet begins today.

"We're expecting the season to start trouble-free," he said. "We're pretty excited."

He's been waiting for this.

Berube, who has worked as a certified public accountant, grew up in the industry as the son of Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau president Paul Berube. He took his first job in racing in 1981 as an office runner for Pimlico general manager Chick Lang.

Berube was named general manager in May, completing what he called a "natural progression" since joining track management as a comptroller in 1995. After three years in that position he served one year as vice president in charge of finance before becoming assistant GM last year.

Berube has fiscal improvements in mind.

The track handled $90-million in wagering last season -- up from $49-million in 1995 -- and he wants to reach $100-million in two years.

Key in generating money is interest by bettors and fans, and better fields play a large part. A massive demand for the track's 1,330 stalls allowed the track to "put a quality, competitive meet together," Berube said.

"You try to pick the best horses that fit in with the meet," he said.

It's a meet made more credible by the American Graded Stakes Committee's decision to return Grade III status to the track's signature race, the $200,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds, after more than a decade.

With graded earnings a key component in entry to Triple Crown events, the race may lure quality colts with Kentucky Derby credentials.

Berube said the race date of March 17, a day after the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, shouldn't crimp the Tampa Bay Derby's importance.

"In the final analysis we thought there were enough quality 3-year-olds in the state of Florida that time of year to run two races a day apart," Berube said. "We're going to get a little different type of horse running in (the Tampa Bay Derby), maybe someone not wanting to run at Gulfstream and someone who wants to come here and earn some graded points."

The Grade III $150,000 Florida Oaks for fillies 3 years old and up also will be March 17.

The last remnant of the labor strife that mired the past two openers appears to be the battle between Tampa Bay Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association president Bob Jeffries and track management. He was among the 55 percent of applicants for stalls who were denied billets on track grounds.

In response, Jeffries has alleged discrimination to his national governing body, Berube said. Horsemen's groups at Sam Houston Race Park and Turfway Park are considering denying their simulcasts signals to Tampa Bay Downs today in support, but Berube said the situation was "not a cause for concern at this time."

Berube said in his conversations with horsemen and TBHBPA board members, most did not support Jeffries' actions, but there remains sympathy for his position.

"I think it would be a good show of sportsmanship between everybody if he had gotten his stalls," said Kathleen O'Connell, a top Tampa Bay Downs trainer. "It would be good on their part to throw away all that animosity that has been there, to get on with the business. They all have valid points.

"Without stalls you cannot make a living. If he truly qualifies -- and by the horses on his stall application he certainly qualified for some -- and even though stalls are a commodity everywhere, if he shows good faith to come and run he should get some stalls."

That controversy aside, horsemen are anxious to begin a full-field meet with corresponding purses.

"The mood of everybody is, we want to run, and that's the bottom line," O'Connell said. "What happened the past couple years was very costly."

And now, perhaps, comes the payoff.

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