LDSMAR, FL. – Something about the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes brings out the best in Hall of Fame trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey’s horses.
After winning the race three times in four years from 2016-2019, McGaughey sent one of his stable stars to Tampa Bay Downs for today’s 38th edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth event, run as the Tampa Bay Stakes In Memory of John Reading, the late two-time leading Oldsmar trainer.
Despite credentials that included a Grade III victory last spring at Pimlico and a third-place finish in the Grade II Bowling Green Stakes in July at Saratoga, 6-year-old Never Explain had to work for it today. Under a patient yet aggressive ride from Vincent Cheminaud, Never Explain took the lead in deep stretch and held on for a half-length victory from Running Bee, with Siege of Boston a nose back in third.
Never Explain’s time of 1:40.03 was .78 seconds off Emmanuel’s stakes record. He paid $10.80 to win as the fourth wagering choice in the 10-horse field.
Besides being McGaughey’s record fourth victory in the race, the trainer improved to 7-for-14 at Tampa Bay Downs this season. But the spotlight fell deservedly on Never Explain, a son of Street Sense out of the Forestry mare Black Oak who improved to 6-for-20 lifetime.
Bred by Hidden Brook Farm & Godolphin, Never Explain is owned by Donald Adam’s Courtlandt Farms.
In the other feature race on today’s “Turf Champions (” card, the Grade III, $175,000 Endeavour Stakes, 5-year-old mare Walkathon recorded her first victory in about 20 months with jockey Antonio Gallardo in the irons. More on that race below.
After Never Explain’s pulsating victory, accomplished in come-from-behind fashion, Cheminaud jogged back to the jockeys’ room to make sure he made his flight connections. He found time, though, to praise his horse and the connections during the sprint.
Walkathon turns in a gate-to-wire performance to win the Grade III Endeavour Stakes under jockey Antonio Gallardo
Reeve McGaughey, deputized by his father to handle saddling duties, was more expansive, including comments on the advantage of drawing the No. 1 post and having Cheminaud aboard.
“I kind of liked the inside post today,” the younger McGaughey said. “Going around those turns it will keep them a little closer naturally, and Vince did a great job because he never lost ground the whole way around the racetrack. That probably was the difference between winning and finishing second or third.”
With the Tampa Bay Stakes being Never Explain’s first race since Sept. 9, it was fair to ask if he had sufficient seasoning to hold off the maturing Chad Brown-trained Running Bee. The Kentucky-bred winner, who has been breezing religiously at McGaughey’s Payson Park Training Center base in Indiantown for his return, answered in the affirmative.
“We expected him to run well, and he held to it,” Reeve McGaughey said. “At this point in his career, he always shows up and then it’s a matter of whether he is good enough.”
In horse racing, 20 months between victories can seem like an eternity. Which is why trainer Ian Wilkes is grateful to have an owner such as Janis Whitham in his corner.
Whitham and Wilkes, who teamed to win the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned (eight months after he won the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs) and the 2017 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes here with McCraken, found the winner’s circle in today’s Grade III, $175,000 Endeavour Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf with Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC’s homebred 5-year-old mare Walkathon – 609 days after her previous victory in the Grade III Regret Stakes on the turf at Churchill Downs.
“It’s great for Mrs. Whitham, her son Clay and the whole family,” Wilkes said after Walkathon posted a length-and-a-half victory from Be My Sunshine, then withstood a claim of foul by that horse’s rider, Edwin Gonzalez, for alleged interference in deep stretch.
“I told Mrs. Whitham after (her fourth-place finish on Dec. 30 in the Grade III Suwannee River at Gulfstream) she was close to being where I wanted her,” Wilkes said. “Her races had gotten better and better. Mrs. Whitham is a tremendous owner who is very loyal.”
Walkathon was allowed to set relatively moderate early fractions of 24.40 for the opening quarter-mile, 49.33 for the half and 1:12.71 for 6 furlongs. By the time the seven-horse field straightened out for the stretch run, Be My Sunshine was the only one with a chance, and she couldn’t narrow the gap enough to make the stewards give Gonzalez’s foul claim more gravitas.
“I hit my horse with my left and she came out a little, but (Be My Sunshine) couldn’t beat me,” Gallardo said.
Walkathon’s time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance was 1:41, .92 seconds off the Endeavour Stakes record set last year by Surprisingly.
“(Wilkes) told me before the race ‘You can’t lose, trust me.’ He said she was doing better than ever, and when I watched the replay (of the 2022 Regret Stakes victory) I saw she had a nice kick at the end,” Gallardo said.
“He told me after the break if nobody else goes, go, and if she breaks off the pace, she’ll still be ready to rock and roll late because she has that strong kick. I didn’t see a lot of speed in the race on paper and I knew I could get the lead comfortably.”
Gallardo also won the ninth race on A Kiss for Khozan, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Stonehedge, LLC and trained by Kathleen O’Connell.
Walkathon paid $20.80 to win as the fifth betting choice. The daughter of Twirling Candy-Walkabout, by Stroll, improved to 4-for-12 lifetime.
The Regret victory in June of 2022 was Walkathon’s third in a row, but she was injured shortly after, forcing Wilkes and the Whithams to consider their long-term options. When it was determined she could return to her previous level, patience ruled the day, and Walkathon turned in decent efforts in the Grade III Cardinal Stakes in November at Churchill Downs and the Suwannee River to engender optimism.
“She finished fourth at Gulfstream, but she had a wide trip and the winner (Full Count Felicia, who faded to sixth today) had a rail trip,” Wilkes said.
“It took a long time to get her back into form, but her races have been getting better and better.”
Around the oval. Equitize, a 4-year-old colt owned by Klaravich Stables, trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Javier Castellano, ran the fastest 1-mile turf time in Tampa Bay Downs history in the eighth race, winning for fun in 1:32.91. The former mark of 1:33.23 was set by Winfromwithin in the 2021 Columbia Stakes.
Today’s mark was set with a stretch start, and officials will decide whether both marks are allowed to stand separately because of that difference in course configuration.
Samy Camacho rode two winners today. He captured the second race on Easy Come Easy Go, a 5-year-old mare owned by Paula Capestro and trained by Renaldo Richards. Camacho added the third on Callihoo, a 4-year-old gelding owned by A. Bianco Holding Limited and trained by Jose Francisco D’Angelo.
Callihoo was claimed from the victory for $8,000 by trainer Mikhail Carmichael for new owner Son of A W Racing.
Thoroughbred racing continues Sunday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:28 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and 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.
“Mouse’s Kids and Family Day” cancelled. The “Mouse’s Kids and Family Day” event scheduled for Sunday has been cancelled due to the threat of inclement weather. Mouse, the Miniature Horse who serves as the Tampa Bay Downs track mascot, hopes to make her next appearance on Sunday, Feb. 18.