OLDSMAR, FL. – When Appealing Stella incurred a fracture in her right rear coffin bone as a 2-year-old, it felt like déjà vu to the filly’s owner, Cindy Nassal.
Appealing Stella’s dam, Rucielo, was injured as a 2-year-old in 1999 after beating Coolbythepool, who developed into a multiple stakes winner. Nassal was forced to retire Rucielo, but has kept her as a broodmare.
Loyalty and devotion paid off handsomely Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs when Appealing Stella, now 4, rallied from well off the pace to post a 1 ¼-length victory from 14-1 shot Becausei’mworthit in the $50,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares.
It was the first stakes victory for Appealing Stella, the first for Rucielo as a dam, and the first as an owner for Nassal, who bred the winner with her husband Bill at their Stonecliff Farm in Ocala. Appealing Stella was sired by Closing Argument.
Rucielo currently is in foal to High Cotton.
Appealing Stella, who has raced only as a 4-year-old and broke her maiden at Tampa Bay Downs on March 28, won for the fourth time in 12 career starts following an impressive allowance/optional claiming triumph at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 7.
Trained by Jane Cibelli and ridden by Angel Serpa, Appealing Stella paid $7.40 as the third betting choice in a six-horse field depleted by three scratches. The winner’s time for the six furlongs on a track labeled “wet-fast” was 1:12.57. Favored Nakano rallied mildly for third and Minaret Prep winner Redbud Road was fourth.
The victory was the seventh from 13 starters at the meet for Cibelli, who won the race before the Minaret with 4-year-old gelding Playing a Joke for owner Bulldawg Enterprises.
“The feeling is unbelievable,” said Nassal, who credited farm manager Kenny Payne and assistant Bonnie Cocuzza for hand-walking Appealing Stella for months during her lengthy recuperation. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t have given her the time she needed, but we let her heal completely.”
The winning connections watched Becausei’mworthit, under jockey Antonio Gallardo, sprint to a six-length lead, raising concerns Appealing Stella would run out of real estate. But Serpa kept her to task down the lane and she proved the best against five rivals who all have won at least one stakes.
“I was kind of hoping something would go out with (Becausei’mworthit), and when she got loose on the lead I got a little nervous,” Cibelli said. “But I thought Angel did a super job. He relaxed her, he didn’t panic and he sat still and rode his race. The (runner-up) backed up a little and it all worked out.”
It was the second stakes victory at the meet for Cibelli, who trains Inaugural Stakes winner Purple Egg.
“This is the first horse I’ve had for the Nassals, and whenever somebody breeds their own, it’s a little bit extra special,” Cibelli said. “You have to give horses the best opportunity you can for them to be as good as they can be, and they’ve done that.”
Serpa was a cool customer throughout, and drove a willing Appealing Stella clear in deep stretch.
“The race set up really well for us,” he said. “The speed was all inside, so I was able to wait with her until the turn. She put in a solid run to get into second place leaving the turn.
“She was drifting in a bit in midstretch, but I got her to change leads and she gave me another run for the win,” Serpa added.
Trainer Jorge Navarro also saddled two winners Saturday. Navarro won the third race with 3-year-old filly Exclusive Sarah for owner Amaty Racing Stables, with Angel Moreno aboard. Navarro came back in the ninth race with 6-year-old mare First Acquital for owner Blue Top Holdings Stable. Victor Santiago was the winning jockey.
In the Lambholm South Race of the Week, which was the fourth on the card, jockey Huber Villa-Gomez rallied Grand Maker from last place on the backstretch for a 1 ¾-length victory from Santonio d’Oro.
Grand Maker, a 3-year-old South Carolina gelding, won for the second time in 11 starts for owner-trainer Lloyd Lockhart and paid $10.40 as the fourth wagering choice in the eight-horse field. His time for the mile-and-an-eighth was 1:55.98.
Trainer Chad Stewart had a couple of reasons to enjoy Saturday’s first race. After saddling 2-year-old gelding Majestic Flyight to win the six-furlong maiden claiming event, Stewart was honored as Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month in a winner’s-circle ceremony with restaurant owner Dan DeMeo.
Tom Gregerson owns Majestic Flyight, who was ridden by Ademar Santos. Stewart has eight victories from 19 starters during the meet, good for second place behind Jamie Ness.
Steady rain through mid-morning forced three races off the turf and resulted in numerous scratches. But the dirt track absorbed the moisture quickly and was upgraded to “wet-fast” by the first race.
Mouse, the beloved Miniature Horse who serves as the mascot for Tampa Bay Downs, is on the grounds and could greet the public Sunday, weather permitting. Her hoofs shine bright, her mane is braided and she is eager to renew acquaintances and make new friends. Mouse loves children, peppermints, going for walks and getting hugs and pats on the neck.
Live racing resumes Sunday with a first-race post time of 12:30 p.m. The next two days (Dec. 31-Jan. 1) feature simulcasting wagering from across the nation, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs will then resume Jan. 2.