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OLDSMAR, FL. – In parts of the country where shoveling snow is the only available form of exercise, the approach of spring and major 3-year-old Thoroughbred races seems hopelessly distant.
But Saturday afternoon at Tampa Bay Downs – on what promises to be a warm, sunny, why-we-moved-to-Florida kind of day – trainer Mark Casse hopes his 3-year-old colt Dynamic Sky can prove he is ready to move on to bigger and better things.
The Ontario-bred youngster, who finished second in the Grade I Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 6 and sixth in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Nov. 3, is part of a two-horse entry with supplemental nominee Sky Commander that is likely to be the betting favorite in the $100,000 Pasco Stakes on Skyway Festival Day.
The Pasco, which is the 10th race on a power-packed 11-race card, has attracted nine colts and geldings set to tackle the seven-furlong challenge. Tampa Bay Downs-based gelding Purple Egg – whose 3-for-3 record includes a stakes-record victory in the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes here Dec. 1 – was scratched Friday with a minor illness.
Saturday’s co-feature is the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, also at seven furlongs. The Gasparilla is slated as the eighth race.
The morning-line favorite in the 11-horse filly field at 5-2 is the David Fawkes-trained Vitameta, who finished second by a half-length here Dec. 1 in the $75,000 Sandpiper Stakes. Vitameta’s foes will include another Casse-trained horse, Floral Sky.
Casse’s entries in the Pasco Stakes, as well as Floral Sky, are owned by John C. Oxley, best known among Thoroughbred racing fans as the owner of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.
Casse – who also trains Uncaptured, a finalist for an Eclipse Award in the 2-Year-Old Male category – is no stranger to Tampa Bay Downs and its 3-year-old series of Triple Crown prep races.
Last year, he sent Oxley’s Kentucky-bred colt Prospective to Oldsmar for the Pasco Stakes, and he responded with a whirlwind rally from far back that resulted in a half-length victory.
Prospective followed up his Pasco score with a second-place finish in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and a victory in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. After running unplaced in the Toyota Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby, Prospective won the Victoria Park Stakes at Woodbine, the Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown and the Delta Mile Stakes at Delta Downs.
So when Casse suggests, as in the case of Dynamic Sky, it isn’t too early to start thinking about spring and roses, it makes sense to pay attention.
“He is coming up to the Pasco OK,” said Casse, who will outfit the Ontario-bred youngster with blinkers to help improve his focus. Luis Contreras, who rode Prospective here last season, will be the jockey on Dynamic Sky, who won the Simcoe Stakes at Woodbine on Sept. 3 for his only victory.
“He came down with a bug after the Breeders’ Cup, and that knocked him off his feed for about a week. Since he’s come back, he’s had some solid breezes, and even though I don’t see him as being 100 percent right now, he is training well enough that I think he is going to run well,” Casse said.
“You’ve got to get going soon if you have a Derby horse, and so far it looks like Dynamic Sky possibly is one. This is a first step, but it’s just a step.”
In the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, Dynamic Sky ran 65 feet farther than winner Joha, according to Trakus statistics. The colt lugged in through the lane, leading to Casse’s decision to add blinkers.
Although Sky Commander has won only once in five starts, his connections elected to supplement him to the race at a cost of $2,000. “He is training very well,” Casse said. “He has been an underachiever to this point, but at times he has shown he is a better-than-average horse.”
Dynamic Sky will break from the No. 3 post, while Sky Commander, who will be ridden by Patrick Husbands, will start from the outside No. 9 post.
The other Pasco entrants, their post positions (not necessarily corresponding with their program numbers because of the Oxley entry) and jockeys include Mind Spell, No. 1 post, Daniel Centeno; Falling Sky, No. 2, Paco Lopez; Lightning Stone, No. 4, Danny Coa; Silver Day, No. 5, Marcelino Pedroza; O T B Bob, No. 6, Fernando De La Cruz; Divine Ambition, No. 7, Willie Martinez; and Hard to Name, No. 8, Angel Serpa.
Hard to Name, trained by John Servis, could be prepared for a strong effort. He showed little in the Dania Beach Stakes on the turf at Gulfstream on Dec. 15, but his dirt form has been good, with back-to-back victories at Parx in Philadelphia last fall.
Not to be overlooked is Mind Spell, whose Dec. 22 start here resulted in an impressive two-and-a-quarter length victory in a six-furlong allowance/optional claiming event. Daniel Centeno returns to ride for high-percentage winning trainer Jason DaCosta.
Like the Pasco, the Gasparilla promises to be a wide-open, competitive affair. Fawkes, who trains Vitameta for Arindel Farm, expects her to move forward from her Sandpiper effort, in which she just missed against Cor Cor’s stakes-record effort.
“I thought (Vitameta) ran an excellent race,” said Fawkes, who returns Jose Cruz to the saddle. “She was bothered a little in the turn and in the lane, and I believe if she got a clean trip she might have won.
“I don’t think the added distance (from six furlongs to seven) will bother her.”
Floral Sky, from the Casse barn, is an Ohio-bred filly who broke her maiden at Churchill Downs last May in her career debut and won on the turf at Woodbine on Oct. 12. She finished off-the-board in Grade III stakes at Churchill and Delta Downs.
“The filly she beat at Woodbine (Leinan) came back and won a stakes (the Glorious Song), and both times (Floral Sky) ran poorly she had more than enough excuses,” Casse said.
Floral Sky will be ridden by Contreras.
Martha’s Moon, trained by Servis and ridden by Paco Lopez, and This Is How, a Graham Motion-trained filly with Joe Rocco, Jr., aboard, also seem likely contenders. Martha’s Moon has shown plenty of early speed in her six-race career, and her three-victory log includes Catcharisingstar Stakes at Calder and the Blue Hen Stakes at Delaware.
The full Gasparilla field in post position order, with jockeys: 1, This Is How, Joe Rocco, Jr.; 2, Martha’s Moon, Paco Lopez; 3, Cindys Casino, Antonio Gallardo; 4, Wildcat Lily, Edgard Zayas; 5, Floral Sky, Luis Contreras; 6, Ladystarturengine, Fernando De La Cruz; 7, Cotton Pickin, Daniel Centeno; 8, Candy Coded Kisses, Willie Martinez; 9, Talent N Passion, Angel Serpa; 10, Vitameta, Jose Cruz; and 11, Carolinaonmymind, Scott Spieth.
Post time for the first race is 12:25 p.m.
On the Friday card, veteran jockey Jorge L. Vargas won his first race of the meet, aboard the John Pimental-trained 4-year-old gelding Amaicing Gerry in the fifth race. The 55-year-old Vargas has ridden 3,074 winners in his career.
Vargas’ son, apprentice Jorge L. Vargas, Jr., on Ynot Gray Boy, finished seventh after prompting the early pace. The winner paid $26.
Also Friday, leading trainer Jamie Ness won with each of his three starters and jockey Fernando De La Cruz won two races. Ness and De La Cruz teamed to win the 10th race on the turf with 5-year-old mare Simple Exchange.
Earlier on the card, Ness won the third race with 5-year-old gelding Chelsea Brook (who was claimed by Wesley Ward for new owner Kenneth L. Ramsey) and the ninth race with 8-year-old gelding Skip to the North. De La Cruz won the seventh race aboard 8-year-old gelding Saucy’s Got It for trainer Barbara McBride.
Each of the Ness winners was owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.
Tampa Bay Downs will conduct live racing Sunday, with a first-race post time of about 12:30 p.m., then race Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday the following week. Thursdays will be added to the mix beginning Jan. 24.
The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Saturday, Jan. 19 is Cap Giveaway Day, with each patron receiving a free cap with the track insignia with paid admission while supplies last.
The popular Tampa Bay Downs blog, which can be found on the front page of the track’s website (www.tampabaydowns.com), offers insights, observations and reflections on horse racing from trainers, jockeys, track officials and fans.
The current blogger is jockey Brittany Rhone, who runs her father Lonnie Arterburn’s stable at the track and shoes her own horses. Learn how Brittany and her sister, Jamie Rocco, auditioned recently for the CBS-TV reality show The Amazing Race and keep an eye out for future blogs from members of the Tampa Bay Downs community.

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