By Mike Henry —-
OLDSMAR, FL. – It’s a place where trainers devise strategy that is liable to fly out the window when a race starts and agents hustle assignments for their baby-faced jockey who may or may not have won 20 races at an unsanctioned bush track.
It’s where old-timers spin tales of a horse that could have been the next Spend a Buck if he hadn’t been injured and a gathering spot for riders who might need to visit the hotbox if they choose to butter their toast.
The chairs and tables are functional, if not spartan, and by mid-morning on a rainy day the floor can be coated with a thin layer of glop. But only first-time visitors to a racetrack kitchen have ever arrived in a suit and tie or high heels.
The sign above the grill speaks to the homespun philosophy embraced by proprietor Jim Tsirigotis: “There’s no better way to feel good than to eat good at Papa Jim’s.”
It might sound run-of-the-mill, but to the racetrack workers who make a regular habit of eating well around their daily duties – especially this time of year – Papa Jim’s Kitchen represents a vital oasis on the outskirts of their daily Tampa Bay Downs existence.
On Monday, Christmas Day, from 11 a.m. until everyone is fed, Tsirigotis, his wife Terry and their son, trainer Jim Tsirigotis, Jr., and cook John Rizos will serve dinner to about 250 backstretch workers. The meal is free of charge, courtesy of Tampa Bay Downs.
The holiday dinner will consist of roasted half-chickens, noodles Alfredo, vegetables, dinner rolls, dessert and beverages. Papa Jim and his crew plan to begin cooking the chickens early Sunday afternoon.
“The main reason we do this is so everyone feels at home, especially the Hispanic workers and others who are away from their families,” Papa Jim said. “They know they have a place to go.
“We don’t like to see anybody go hungry,” added Papa Jim, who served backstretch workers a turkey dinner with all the trimmings on Thanksgiving. “And when I see the smiles on the faces of people who come here, that to me is worth a million dollars.”
Breeders’ Cup Sprint-winning jockey Willie Martinez, who won the 1991-1992 Oldsmar riding title as a wide-eyed sensation from Puerto Rico a few weeks after turning 21, remembers what it was like to feel alone, separated from his family so he could pursue his career.
He remembers the comfort he felt and the encouragement he received at the old Tampa Bay Downs kitchen.
“This is our headquarters during the break (from 8:30-9 a.m., when the track is closed for maintenance),” said Martinez. “The backside is the heart of the racetrack pumping, and the kitchen is where it all begins. If it wasn’t for the backside help, none of us would be able to be part of the sport.
“To have a place where everyone can gather and be together, especially through the holidays, means a great deal to people,” Martinez said. “You come here to take a little break, and you’re ready to go back to your duties for the rest of the day.”
The 74-year-old Tsirigotis, who trained and raced Thoroughbreds out of his Suncoast Farms training center in Brooksville, Fla., from 1989-97, shares Martinez’s respect and admiration for the assistants, exercise riders, grooms and hot walkers who populate the Tampa Bay Downs stable area.
In addition to preparing meals each racing day from 5 a.m. until about an hour after the last race, Papa Jim’s is open from 5 a.m.-3 p.m. on “dark” days. This season, the restaurant is also employing a roving food cart, with former assistant trainer and starting-gate worker George Beaulieu going from barn to barn during training hours.
Beaulieu sells hot and cold sandwiches, burritos, tamales, pastries, soft drinks, coffee and hot chocolate. “If I don’t have something with me, I can call Papa Jim, go to the kitchen to pick it up and bring it back to the barn,” Beaulieu said.
“I might be making the rounds and an exercise rider will tell me somebody in Barn 23 wants something. It’s kind of word of mouth, but most of them have my number, anyway. Whatever they want, they can get,” Beaulieu said.
“The racetrack is one big, happy family, and we want to help out the people the best that we can. You usually spend more time with them than you do with your own family.”
That kind of convenience can be taken for granted, but Papa Jim isn’t worried as long as he is helping hard-working horse people fuel up for a busy day.
“We cater to everybody. We give them freshly-cooked, made-to-order food at good prices,” said Papa Jim, who spent almost two weeks in intensive care in May after suffering a stroke and a heart attack.
“I’ve been working since I was 10, and I helped to raise four brothers and two sisters, who all graduated from college. I got married to the girl I love, and we’ve been married 51 years. And we have a son who is a gentleman and polite and respectful. Tampa is my home, and every day I go to work, I feel like I am surrounded by family.”
That feeling gets returned on a consistent basis. “This is the best track kitchen I’ve been to,” said trainer Benny Feliciano. “The food is good, the place is clean and the people are nice. What else do you need?”
Martinez might have summed up the atmosphere at Papa Jim’s best.
“It’s whatever suits your need at the moment.”