Shipping four horses into a track for three major stakes races on a single day – from two training sites – is a major organizational challenge.
But it’s one trainer Mark Casse and his staff welcome, because it signifies the stable’s ability to compete at the top level of Thoroughbred racing.
“It’s why we do what we do. The people who work for us love it, too,” said Casse, who will saddle 3-year-old colt Prospective in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes; 5-year-old mare Exclusive Love in the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes; and a pair of 3-year-old fillies, Northern Passion and Dixie Strike, in the $150,000 Florida Oaks.
“It’s what you strive for in this business. Fortunately, I have a wonderful bunch of people who work for us, because we’re not only racing at Tampa Bay Downs (Saturday); we have two or three running at Gulfstream, also, and they have to be taken care of. I have a couple of guys, Mike Anderson and Mitch Downs, who have been with me more than 30 years,” Casse added.
The Sam F. Davis, the Endeavour and the Florida Oaks – the latter two on turf – are the showcase races of Tampa Bay Downs’ annual Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. They are part of a stellar 12-race card that begins with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. Each stakes race is a mile-and-a-sixteenth in distance. There is a Super High-5 carryover of $12,183.91.
Saturday’s festivities include an appearance by Steve Cauthen, the legendary Hall of Fame jockey who rode Affirmed to his 1978 Triple Crown triumph. Cauthen will sign autographs in front of the Tampa Bay Downs gift shop from 1-3 p.m.
Additionally, Tampa Bay Downs will host the Taste of Tampa Bay Food Truck Festival, with seven food trucks and six tents strategically located to satisfy the most discerning of palates.
That Casse should have a chance to collect the lion’s share of the $550,000 in available stakes money is no surprise to the sport’s followers. The top trainer at Woodbine in Toronto for more than a decade, Casse won a record three consecutive Sovereign Awards as Canada’s top trainer from 2006-08.
Prospective and Casse’s Oaks entrants, Northern Passion and Dixie Strike, are owned by John C. Oxley, best known as the owner of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.
The Kentucky-bred Prospective won the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs three weeks ago and captured the Grade III Grey Stakes last October at Woodbine, but seems certain to face his sternest challenge Saturday.
“When I went back and watched his race (in the Pasco), I felt just the way he was running and his demeanor, it didn’t look to me like he was all in. His ears were pricked and he did just what he had to do to win,” Casse said. “But that is kind of how he is. He isn’t real flashy, but he gets the job done. He definitely ran farther than everyone else and he was bothered at the start.”
Prospective will break from the outside No. 11 post under his regular jockey, Luis Contreras. “Obviously, we want to win, but more importantly we want to see him move forward and go on to the next stage,” said Casse, who hopes to then train Prospective to the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10.
Northern Passion and Dixie Strike are both Canadian-bred fillies who have won in stakes company at Woodbine. Northern Passion won the Grade III Natalma on Sept. 17, a victory equally notable for who she beat.
The second-place finisher, Dayatthespa, won the recent Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream while the third-place Natalma finisher, Stephanie’s Kitten, captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in November.
Northern Passion, by First Samurai out of A Touch of Glory, finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in her first start on a conventional dirt surface, and Casse says if he had it to do over again, he probably would have run her in the turf race. “I don’t know if she would have won, but she definitely would have performed better,” he said.
Dixie Strike, a bit slower to develop than her stablemate, romped in the $150,000 Ontario Lassie Stakes at Woodbine on Dec. 3. The Dixie Union-Noble Strike filly has been training exceptionally well for the Oaks, working four furlongs in 48 4/5 seconds at Palm Meadows on Jan. 26.
Dixie Strike is a half-sister to Inglorious, who won the Queen’s Plate Stakes last summer (defeating the Casse-trained Hippolytus). All of Dixie Strike’s races have been on the synthetic surface at Woodbine, but “she really likes (training on) dirt and we have the Kentucky Oaks in mind for her if all goes well.”
Contreras will ride Northern Passion and past Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Jose Lezcano will handle Dixie Strike. They will compete as a single entity for wagering purposes.
Casse’s other entry, Exclusive Love, is owned by Robert Masterson and will be ridden in the Endeavour by Contreras. She will have her hands full against the likes of graded stakes winners Zagora, Keertana, Dundalk Dust and Jenny’s So Great, but Casse says she belongs.
“If the race had come up where I thought it was impossible for her to win, I would have scratched her, but I think we have a good chance. If (Contreras) can get her in a real good rhythm, I expect her to run real well,” Casse said.
The 10-year-old mare Extra Fuse scored her third victory of the meeting in Friday’s second race, in the process giving Lloyd Lockhart his seventh victory this season as a breeder-owner-trainer. Ridden by Irwin Rosendo, she ran the seven furlongs in 1:24.64.