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Racing News

Published Mar 24, 2024
by Mike Henry
Forever Souper, a homebred 5-year-old gelding racing for Charlotte C. Weber's Live Oak Plantation and trained by Michael Trombetta, sets a stakes record in the ESMARK Turf Classic under Paco Lopez (courtesy SV Photography)

Chamber of Commerce weather – clear skies, temperatures in the 70s and enough wind to keep things interesting – greeted a crowd of 3,720 enthusiastic racegoers to Tampa Bay Downs for the 21st annual Florida Cup, a collection of six $110,000 stakes races for registered Florida-breds.

While the turf course was listed as “good” rather than firm for the first time since the 2013 Florida Cup, horsemen, jockeys and track officials praised the efforts of the track maintenance crew for their preparation of both the turf and dirt track after considerable rain the previous two days.

In short, the stage was perfectly set for products of the state’s Thoroughbred industry to put on a first-class show, and they didn’t disappoint.

Jockey Paco Lopez was the star of the afternoon’s competition, winning the last three Florida Cup races, including a stakes-record performance on 5-year-old gelding Forever Souper in the ESMARK Turf Classic. But, as always, the Thoroughbreds captured the public’s imagination, striving for excellence with those qualities of determination and courage that have long stamped the industry in the Sunshine State.

Here is a capsule look at the six races, with contributions throughout from racing journalist Lynne Snierson:




About the last thing jockey Paco Lopez expected from 5-year-old gelding Forever Souper was a stakes record after two days of rain soaked the Oldsmar turf, turning it to “good” rather than firm for the Florida Cup for the first time in 11 years.

But the electronic timer didn’t lie: Forever Souper ran the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:46.87, bettering the former mark of 1:47 flat set in 2010 by Picou.

Forever Souper’s time was .61 seconds off Hall of Fame member Tepin’s course record for the distance.

“Oh, wow. Really? I didn’t know that,” Lopez said with a wide smile. “(Trainer) Michael (Trombetta) had him ready, and the horse did it very well. I had plenty of horse today.”

The victory was the second Florida Stakes triumph on the card for Trombetta and breeder-owner Live Oak, the legendary Ocala showcase of Charlotte C. Weber. Forever Souper’s triumph was the fifth in the ESMARK Turf Classic for Live Oak Plantation, a mark it also reached in the Equistaff Sophomore Turf earlier on the card with Crystal Quest.

Happyisasdhappydoes set a measured pace under Antonio Gallardo and appeared dangerous on the backside, at least until Lopez asked Forever Souper to get going. The rider angled him to the outside for the stretch run, and from there he posted a convincing length-and-a-quarter victory from Happyisashappydoes, with Me and Mr. C finishing third.

“I wasn’t really worried (about Happisashappydoes) stealing the race, because it’s a long stretch and I had plenty of horse,” Lopez said.

The son of American Pharoah-Mighty Souper, by War Front, paid $3.00 to win as the wagering favorite. He is 6-for-13 lifetime, having won the Sunshine Turf Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 21 in his previous start. First-place earnings of $60,000 boosted his career figure to $272,255.

Trombetta was ecstatic about Forever Souper’s performance.

“We are very fond of him. He’s been a lot of fun,” Trombetta said via telephone. “He’s a cool cat, this horse. It would be awfully hard to beat Tepin’s course record, but the stakes record is really great.

“We were looking forward to this race with him. After the last race at Gulfstream, there just wasn’t enough room in the schedule to try to squeeze another race in that would make sense. I figured, you know what? We’ll just point him to this race and give him plenty of time. He came through really well. Paco rides this horse really well and (Forever Souper) seems to run right out from underneath him.”




Expectations were high among the connections of Mystic Lake entering the race, and the daughter of Mo Town-Salty Soul, by Itsmyluckyday, didn’t disappoint. She moved to the lead shortly after the start and was never threatened, with Edgard Zayas riding high in the saddle until asking for her best at the quarter-mile pole.

The result was a 3 ½-length victory from Girvin’s Princess in a time of 1:23.37 for the 7-furlong distance. Hopesndreams finished third in the six-horse field.

The victory was the third in seven starts for Mystic Lake, who was supplemented to the field at a cost of $2,000 after not being originally nominated. Mystic Lake had won the Gasparilla Stakes here on Jan. 13, also under Zayas, in her 3-year-old debut. First-place money of $60,000 raised her career bankroll to $183,266.

“She broke super sharp out of the gate and as soon as she took the lead, she kind of relaxed and from there I knew I was in a good spot,” Zayas said. “She can be a little nervous, but she relaxed so good today and when I asked her, she really kicked on and kept on rolling.”

Mystic Lake paid $3.20 to win as the betting favorite. She is owned by C2 Racing Stable and Stefania Farms and trained by Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Peggy Costanzo bred her.

Clint Cornett, a partner in C2 Racing Stable with his brother Mark, said they were able to relax as well as their horse when Mystic Lake started so nicely.

“As long as she got out of the gate and got her trip, we felt pretty confident she was going to do exactly what she did,” Clint Cornett said. “We cut her back to 7 furlongs (after a fifth-place effort on March 2 at Gulfstream in the Grade III, 1-mile Herecomesthebride Stakes on the turf), and I think she liked it. You could tell on the backside she was really relaxed, and (Zayas) really didn’t ask her until late.”

Joseph, who watched the race from south Florida, was delighted with the performance by both filly and rider.

“She ran well. I thought Edgard was very smart,” Joseph said. “He broke well and was able to keep Paco (Lopez, on Miss Sayley from post 1) on the inside and not put on too much pressure. She showed up and ran a big race, and she was very professional.

“I have no plans for the future with her yet. This race was a decider for her so I’ll talk it over with the owners and then come up with a plan.” 




Every time his 4-year-old filly Charlie’s Wish runs, owner Mark Queen (Royalight Racing LLC) feels as if he is playing with house money. He acquired the son of First Dude-Superior Sarah, by Werblin, when a member of the horse’s breeding partnership, Three Gin Guys Stable, died and the other two partners (who were clients of Queen’s) gifted him the horse.

“They gave her to me as a yearling, and it’s so nice when you raise them yourselves,” Queen said after Charlie’s Wish scored a half-length victory from a hard-charging Mohawk Trail. The pace-setter, Baby Steps, finished third, while defending race champion and favorite Sweet Dani Girl settled for fourth.

Charlie’s Wish paid $14.60 to win after stopping the timer in 1:40.94 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance, .52 seconds off Speed Seeker’s course record. Charlie’s Wish improved to 4-for-14 with five seconds, and first-place money of $70,000 raised her earnings to $296,474.

Queen, the son of legendary 88-year-old Florida breeder-owner Harold Queen, also received a bonus of a stallion fee from sponsor Pleasant Acres Stallions for up to $10,000.

It’s doubtful he’ll use it to breed Charlie’s Wish any time soon. With Lopez en route to his third consecutive victory, the winner moved smartly along the inside on the turn for home to wrest the lead from Baby Steps, then held off Mohawk Trail courageously.

“Paco did a great job with this horse,” said trainer David Fawkes, who also teamed with Lopez to win the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore with Pure Class. “The last time she ran on the grass (a third-place finish on Jan. 14 in the Sunshine Filly and Mare Turf Stakes at Gulfstream), she was really green.

“She’s growing up now, like all of them.”

Lopez was momentarily worried he might have moved prematurely on Charlie’s Wish, but he didn’t want to get beaten to the punch by Javier Castellano, who had Sweet Dani Girl in prime striking position outside of Baby Steps. Lopez needn’t have worried, as his horse was best, plain and simple.

“My filly just ran very good. She had been working well, but I was a little surprised how well she ran,” Lopez said.

Lopez also won the fifth race on the card on 8-year-old gelding Klickitat for owner In Front Racing Stables and trainer Jose Francisco D’Angelo, giving the rider four winners on the card.





Javier Castellano wasn’t concerned when Prevent opened up a 5-length lead on the backstretch, posting moderate fractions of 23.38 seconds for the quarter-mile and 47.85 for the half. He was confident his horse would respond when asked, and Crystal Quest didn’t let him down, powering to a ¾-length victory from the determined pace-setter. Ninja Star finished third.

The victory was a record fifth in the race for owner Live Oak Plantation, which bred Crystal Quest under its Live Oak Stud banner. Michael Trombetta trains the son of Uncle Mo-Giant Crystal, by Giant’s Causeway, for breeder-owner Charlotte C. Weber.

Crystal Quest’s time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth was 1:41.86. The victory was his third in four starts, and his first stakes effort had Castellano singing his praises.

“I liked the way he finished. He is learning a lot and I think this win is huge for him,” said Castellano, who was riding Crystal Quest for the first time. “I think he can go on from here to the graded (stakes level).”

Trombetta was pleased, and also a bit relieved, after his colt’s third consecutive victory since Jan. 28.

“We were a little concerned running back on short rest but he bounced out of his last race pretty good, so we didn’t want to pass up this opportunity,” Trombetta said. “He was doing well so fortunately he was able to handle it. He certainly seems to like the turf and the artificial surface (at Gulfstream).

“He’s always done everything right. He was pretty green in his first start – he walked out of the gate and showed us he wasn’t ready to do it yet, so I had to go back to work and kind of put some good works in him and give him a little bit more time to put it together. Since then he’s done everything really well.

“Javier was patient with him and when he asked him, he kicked on pretty good. He’s just starting to mature and really come into himself so we’re real happy with him,” Trombetta added.

Castellano was content to let Prevent open up early. “I didn’t want to rush my horse out of his style,” he said. “He’s a come-from-behind horse no matter what the pace is, so I just picked out a good target and encouraged him a little at the 3/8-mile pole, and I asked him turning for home. I liked the way he responded.”

Riding for connections such as Weber and Trombetta never loses its meaning, even to a veteran such as Castellano. “She is a wonderful lady who has supported the sport for many years, and Michael did a great job getting him ready. I’m grateful for the opportunity to ride for them.”

Crystal quest paid $4 to win as the even-money favorite. First-place money of $60,000 boosted his earnings to $122,830.




Even though Sibelius’s credentials as a world-class sprinter are well-established, jockey Samy Camacho couldn’t help but blame himself For Mish’s neck defeat against last year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen winner on Feb. 10 at Tampa Bay Downs in the Pelican Stakes.

Without Sibelius to contend with today, the 7-year-old gray gelding Mish displayed his class, moving to the lead effortlessly on the turn for home before gearing down late for a 3 ¼-length victory from If Not for Luck. Zydeceaux finished third.

Mish, a son of Field Commission-Wicked Great, by Greatness, improved to 9-for-28 with the victory. Owned by the C2 Racing Stable partnership of brothers Clint and Mark Cornett and trained by Saffie A. Joseph, Jr., Mish was bred by Joyce Mary Kielty.

“It’s a huge win. He’s a beautiful horse, and he came in sharp today like he did (in the Pelican). I was in a perfect spot from the outside, in the clear, and when we turned for home he took off,” Camacho said.

Clint Cornett said they had considered sending Mish to Dubai for a rematch against Sibelius in Saturday’s upcoming Dubai Golden Shaheen, but sometimes the best plans are the ones you don’t follow through on. Clint didn’t seem in the mood to wonder “what-if” after such an impressive triumph, achieved in a time of 1:09.82 for the 6-furlong distance.

“He ran a good second (in the Pelican) and he ran well today. He’s Mr. Consistency,” Cornett said. “He keeps doing his thing.”

Mish has finished first or second in eight of his last nine starts.

Watching via simulcast, trainer Joseph viscerally experienced what happens when an experienced Thoroughbred pro who is still at or near the peak of his ability is allowed to do his thing.

“This horse is the gift that keeps on giving, most definitely,” Joseph said. “He lost some form last year so we backed off of him and went back to some easier races. Once he found his form again he’s been ultra-consistent.

“Today’s race worked in his favor. He sat in a perfect spot and after that he just did what he should. He’s a good old gelding who’s very solid, and even when he gets beat he shows up. In his last race, Sibelius just beat him. Mish likes Tampa, too, and today he came back here and won a stakes.”

And when he walked back to his barn, his gray coat glistening with sweat, he donned the winner’s blanket with a pride and bearing that was kind of awesome to see.

First-place money of $60,000 increased Mish’s career bankroll to $473,682.




JoAnn and Alex Lieblong’s colt Pure Class was somewhat overlooked by bettors in the eight-horse Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore. But trainer David Fawkes and jockey Paco Lopez sensed they were sitting on a horse ready to take off after winning his previous start, a 6-furlong conditional allowance on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park.

“I talked to Paco before the race and said ‘What do you think?’ and he said ‘I want to be right off the pace and ask him turning for home,’ and that’s what he did,” Fawkes said.

“This horse is still just learning. He’s not a slow learner and he’s doing great, but he’s still a big baby,” Fawkes said.

And one with black stakes type to his credit.

Pure Class paid $16.20 to win as the co-third wagering choice in the eight-horse field.

Pure Class is a son of The Big Beast out of I’mclassyandsassy, by Master Command. He has three victories and three seconds from seven starts, and first-place earnings of $70,000 increased his bankroll to $176,140. His time for the 7-furlong distance was 1:23.77.

Sugar Boy, the unbeaten (4-for-4) colt from Puerto Rico, finished second, with Everdoit third in his second race in eight days. Saybrook, making his third career start, ran creditably to hold fourth in the eight-horse field as the surprising 6-5 wagering favorite.

Lopez has also been working Pure Class, and he thought that gave him an advantage today. “I felt comfortable with him, and I was confident he would respond when I asked him,” Lopez said. “He worked very good the last couple of times, and he’s doing better and better.”

The race was the first outside OF Gulfstream Park for Pure Class.

Around the oval. Thoroughbred racing will continue Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:48 p.m. Racing will be conducted Friday and Saturday, as well, before Tampa Bay Downs closes for Easter on Sunday, March 31. The track will then resume its Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule on April 3.

With the exception of Easter, Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.




Forever Souper, a homebred 5-year-old gelding racing for Charlotte C. Weber's Live Oak Plantation and trained by Michael Trombetta, sets a stakes record in the ESMARK Turf Classic under Paco Lopez (courtesy SV Photography)

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