Stella F. Thayer

The range of responsibilities that hover within the mindset of the leader of a thoroughbred racetrack has wide parameters. And seeming to be doing “the right thing” is not simple to every vantage point.




Dec. 27, 1940, Tampa, Florida


The range of responsibilities that hover within the mindset of the leader of a thoroughbred racetrack has wide parameters. And seeming to be doing “the right thing” is not simple to every vantage point.

Horses’ and jockeys’ safety has to come first. It is incumbent that one not only professes, but follows through meticulously, that the safety of horses and jockeys is the paramount consideration. At the same time, the product being offered to the public involves a track’s customers’ money multiple times a day. Thus, any suggestion that you are not looking out for every patron’s every dollar promulgates accusations of a corporate mentality indifferent to interests of “the little guy.” Then, too, giving the horsemen — owners and trainers — a fair shake can hardly be seen as a marginal priority.

As co-owner and president of Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Florida, Stella Thayer has put down various markers indicating her ability to serve — and prosper within — all those criteria.

As for safety of the horses, the Tampa Bay turf course is praised for its quality and the dirt track has overcome any suggestion of a former reputation for a degree of depth hinting of additional strain on runners. All the while, the interests of patrons, owners, and trainers have been enhanced to a status higher than many years of history of Tampa Bay Downs under various names. Hall of Fame trainers now regard the track’s Kentucky Derby preps as legitimate. The day-to-day quality of racing has distanced itself from the “minor league” image that was a challenge to a track whose location meant for many years bore comparison to the glamor of not one, but two, in-state neighbors — Hialeah and Gulfstream Park.

Peter Berube has been a key compatriot of Mrs. Thayer for nearly 30 years. (Mrs. Thayer and her brother, Howell Ferguson, purchased the track in 1986.) Now in his 23rd year as vice president and general manager of Tampa Bay Downs, Berube has deep appreciation for Mrs. Thayer’s qualifications as a horsewoman, business leader, and civic benefactor.

“She has been a horsewoman her entire life,” said Berube. “She started riding when she was five, and her father, Chester Ferguson, headed the group that acquired the track (then named Sunshine Park) in 1965. She was elected to The Jockey Club in 2004 and was named a steward for the organization in 2012. Mrs. Thayer is also a past president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. She has also been an owner. As a result, she understands that without keen attention to the welfare and safety of the horses, we cease to exist, both as a racetrack and an industry.”

Berube also is impressed by Mrs. Thayer’s ability develop a broad, innovative perspective: “As the racing business has evolved and consumer tastes have shifted, the need to expand our offerings to generate additional revenue led to the addition of our golf practice facility and The Silks Poker Room, both opening in 2003, and more recently, our backyard picnic area. However, despite those popular changes, Mrs. Thayer has emphasized marketing Tampa Bay Downs first and foremost for its racing product and as a venue for people to enjoy a day at the races, no matter where they end up on their visit.

“She has also fostered a spirit of teamwork within all departments, creating a level of employee loyalty that seems to be rare these days. It is indeed rewarding and reassuring to work with someone as perceptive and caring as she is.”

Mrs. Thayer’s extensive background as a Tampa attorney and her community involvement and philanthropy have elevated the standing of Tampa Bay Downs both within and outside the area. Mrs. Thayer has served on the board of trustees of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation and the University of South Florida Foundation and as chairman of both the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and Hillsborough County Hospital Authority. She is also a past president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

“Additionally, Tampa Bay Downs holds five charity days during the meet, with proceeds going to organizations that benefit Tampa Bay-area residents and the thoroughbred racing community,” Berube said. “Awards that we have been fortunate enough to receive include the Upper Tampa Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Award in 2006; America’s Best Racing’s ‘Fan Choice Favorite Small-Mid Circuit Racetrack’ in 2021; the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber’s 2012 award for outstanding contributions; and the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2014 and 2015.”

The track known in racing publications simply  as “Tampa” opened in 1926. The founding owner was Harvey Myers. Col. Matt Winn, synonymous with the emergence of the Kentucky Derby as a national event, was also involved in the management. The track was closed during part of World War II and was used as a training facility by the United States Army.

The track re-opened with the name Sunshine Park in 1947 under ownership of a New York-based group, and it later was known for a time as Florida Downs. Its location had the tangential advantage of being close to where preseason Major League Baseball training took place, so it came to the attention of highly prominent sports writers such as Grantland Rice, Red Smith, and Arthur Daley. Rice, in fact, called Sunshine Park “my favorite racetrack,” and was memorialized two years after his 1954 death by the naming of a race and a scholarship program for him.

What might have seemed another potential boon was proximity to the Ocala region, which in the 1950s became the center of a rapidly developing thoroughbred breeding industry. A plum of that development was emerging 2-year-old sales schedule, but the Florida breeders from the beginning held those sales primarily in the Southeast Florida environments of the major tracks and prosperous stable owners.

Berube can point to a growing number of major horses who have raced at Tampa Bay and credits the racing office, headed by racing secretary Allison De Luca, for “establishing a strong rapport over the years with successful owners and trainers. With seven graded stakes races, including the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and the Sam F. Davis Stakes, their efforts speak for themselves.

“Mrs. Thayer has also made it a priority to maintain a dedicated track maintenance department headed by Tom McLaughlin, our Vice President of Facilities and Track Surfaces. Many leading stables from South Florida consider both our dirt and turf surfaces to be among the safest and most consistent in their experience.”

In 2007, future Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger shipped the previous year’s juvenile champion, Street Sense, from South Florida to use the Tampa Bay Derby as a serious classics prep. Street Sense’s nose victory was followed by his also winning the Kentucky Derby, a milestone for the prestige of the Tampa Bay Derby and the track overall.

Three years earlier, trainer Todd Pletcher had shipped Limehouse from South Florida to win the Tampa Bay Derby prior to running fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher regarded that pattern encouraging enough that he continued to utilize Tampa Bay for classic preparation as well as other targets at the track as his own Hall of Fame career has developed.

Pletcher said, “There was a time when it had sort of a reputation for being a deep track, so that you needed to train there before a race over the track. Recent experience has shown that it is a very fair and very safe surface. You can win with a horse with speed or a horse coming from off the pace. We’ve had great luck at Tampa Bay. It is a good place to get a race, for example, and give some fitness to a late developing 2-year-old in a maiden/allowance as well as a potential Derby horse.”

Pletcher broke through as a Kentucky Derby winning trainer in 2010 with Super Saver, who had run third while prepping in the Tampa Bay Derby. In 2017, Pletcher won his second Kentucky Derby, with Always Dreaming, who broke his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs in his first start as a sophomore. Always Dreaming won the maiden race by 11 lengths and had only two more races before the Kentucky Derby. Moreover, Pletcher also won that year's Belmont Stakes, with Tapwrit, who had finished second in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and had won the Tampa Bay Derby.

Other Hall of Fame trainers who have come to regard Tampa Bay Downs as an important target include Bill Mott, who chose Tampa Bay for the first 3-year-old race for the developing filly Royal Delta and also for the first 4-year-old start for Drosselmeyer. Royal Delta became a champion, two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and Hall of Famer, and Drosselmeyer won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The growing list of Eclipse Award horses, Breeders' Cup winners, and other stars also includes Hall of Famer Tepin, as well as Gio Ponti and World Approval.

Creation of the Pillars of the Turf category of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2013 did not stipulate, nor give additional weight to, participation in the Museum’s funding or operation. However, in addition to the foregoing career description, it is a source of gratitude that Stella Thayer has also been a staunch ally and leader for the Museum.

“She was the first female president of the Museum, and her tenure, from 2005 through 2014, is the second-longest of any president,” pointed out her close friend and longtime Museum associate Leverett Miller.  “Mrs. Thayer recognized the financial pitfalls facing so many museums at that time, culminating in the 2008 national economic situation.

“For this museum, she turned it around with innovations and major cost-cutting measures. She introduced the racing simulator, led the creation of the Pillars of the Turf category and Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor, acquired the John Nerud collection, and was instrumental in obtaining some significant financial contributions.  She also greatly strengthened the Board of Trustees, among many other contributions. Upon the end of her term, the Museum was in better shape than it had been since its founding so many years ago.

“Mrs. Thayer is the last person to take credit for running anything, but it is certainly appropriate to honor a person who quietly operates a great racetrack, helps so many who need help, loves horses and horse racing in the U.S. and abroad, and reveres the Museum she so ably took charge of when called upon.”



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