Saturday’s 11th annual Florida Cup Day showcase has attracted 53 Thoroughbreds set to compete for total purse money of $450,000 in a series of six races for registered Florida-breds.
The Florida Cup races, which begin with Race 5, are worth $75,000 apiece and are the centerpiece of a quality-laden, 12-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m.
Florida Cup Week, if you will, got off to a rousing start, as jockey Augusto A. Marin rode three winners from three mounts, two for trainer Joyce Kielty. Marin has 15 victories during the meet from 130 starters; more on his outstanding afternoon to follow.
Three horses return to the Florida Cup as defending champions in their respective races. In the seventh race – the mile-and-an-eighth Besilu Stables Turf Classic for horses 4-years-old-and-upward – owner-trainer Dennis Manning’s 8-year-old gelding Roman Tiger will face seven rivals seeking to dethrone him.
Angel Serpa has drawn the riding assignment, and he was aboard Roman Tiger last year for both his Turf Classic victory and his shocking upset in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes. Included in the field is the Todd Pletcher-trained Star Channel, who won last year’s Florida Cup Sophomore Turf (by definition, sophomore Thoroughbreds are 3-years-old).
The likely favorite for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Distaff Turf, which is the ninth race on the program, is defending champion Hooh Why, a 7-year-old mare owned by Mark Hoffman and Earl Trostrud, Jr.
Hooh Why, who won last year’s race by a head from Unbridled Humor, is the most accomplished of the Florida Cup Day entries, with 11 victories and 12 seconds from 50 starts and lifetime earnings of $1,165,103. Her achievements include a victory in the 2009 Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland at odds of 24-1. Ronnie Allen, Jr., who rode Hooh Why to close-up fourth and fifth-place finishes this season at Tampa Bay Downs in the Grade III Endeavour and Grade III Hillsborough, will be in the irons.
Among those set to face Hooh Why is 4-year-old filly Awesome Belle, the winner last year at Calder of four consecutive stakes, including two on the turf.
The third defending Florida Cup champion set to compete is 5-year-old mare It’s Me Mom, who set the Tampa Bay Downs six-furlong track record of 1:08.67 in last season’s event.
Trained by Lynne Scace and to be ridden by Willie Martinez, It’s Me Mom faces a stern test; her 10 male rivals for the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint, which is the 10th race on the card, include 6-year-old gelding Good Lord, winner of the seven-furlong Super Stakes here in track-record time of 1:22.03; 7-year-old gelding Sneaking Uponyou, winner of the 2011 Sprint; 5-year-old Star Harbour from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer William Mott; and supplemental entry Soaring Stocks, a 5-year-old stakes winner from the barn of Todd Pletcher.
The Florida Cup Day card kicks off with the Journeyman Stud Sophomore Turf at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, followed by the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies at seven furlongs. The eighth race is the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore, also at seven furlongs.
Back to Marin, who enjoyed his biggest day of the meet Wednesday, going 3-for-3, all with hefty long shots. In the first race, a seven-furlong maiden claiming event, Marin powered 5-year-old mare Formal Gown to victory in her first career start. Joyce Kielty also owns Formal Gown, who was bred in Florida by Domenick Zanni. The winner paid $28.80.
The Kielty-Marin combination lit up the tote board again in the fifth race with Phyllis D’Angelo’s 4-year-old filly My Precious Secret, who paid $45.60 in winning the mile-and-a-sixteenth turf claiming contest.
Marin stayed on the turf for his third triumph in the seventh race, a 1-mile claiming affair. He piloted 6-year-old gelding Stack the Deck to an impressive victory for owner Thomas L. McGhee, Jr., and trainer Michael E. Murray. Stack the Deck paid $41.20.
Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness, leading jockey Daniel Centeno and leading owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., combined for two victories Wednesday. They won the sixth race, a six-furlong allowance/$16,000 optional claiming race, with 4-year-old colt Scallion, and the eighth, a six-furlong claiming contest, with 4-year-old gelding High Native Fly.
Within two hours of collecting career victory No. 1,500 on Friday at Tampa Bay Downs, everything was pretty much back to normal for trainer Kathleen “K.O.” O’Connell.
Following a jubilant celebration in the winner’s circle after her 3-year-old gelding This One’s for Mel broke his maiden on the turf, O’Connell boarded an airplane for a flight to south Florida to prepare for Saturday morning’s training session at Calder Race Course.
“Winning 1,500 is wonderful, but I had to be in Miami on Saturday to start working with my babies,” said O’Connell, referring to the 18 2-year-old Thoroughbreds in her barn working toward their career debuts. “Calder has always been a mecca for 2-year-olds and Tampa Bay Downs is where I race most of my horses in the winter, so I need to split my time between both places.”
O’Connell has entered four horses on Florida Cup Day: Gilbert G. Campbell’s stakes winner Kanturk Kid in the Journeyman Stud Sophomore Turf; Sue Devault’s Carolinaonmymind and Campbell's Alluring Lady in the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies; and Campbell’s Too Fast to Pass in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore.
Reaching a career milestone can be as nerve-wracking as it is rewarding. Such was the case for O’Connell – the winner of the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month Award – as she approached victory No. 1,500.
If you didn’t know better, you would have thought her horses were trying too hard to get their conditioner over the hump. From March 10-28, O’Connell sent out four runners-up and five third-place finishers as the inevitable celebration kept getting delayed.
“My poor help – they were all wanting it so bad, it became agonizing,” said O’Connell, who currently is fourth in the track standings with 24 victories after winning Wednesday’s ninth race with 3-year-old filly Yawn on the lawn for 1,501 lifetime. “But it also made it more interesting.”
O’Connell finally got there March 29 in a 1-mile maiden claiming turf race that had plenty of drama. This One’s for Mel surged in deep stretch under jockey Antonio Gallardo for the victory, but not before swerving sharply outside down the backstretch, in response to birds in his line of sight. “It was only his second race on the turf, and he is still on the green side,” O’Connell said.
This One’s for Mel is a homebred racing for Gilbert G. Campbell, who has collaborated with O’Connell on numerous success stories the past two decades. Two years ago, they teamed to win the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with Watch Me Go, earning O’Connell her first trip to the Kentucky Derby.
Their first big horse together was millionaire Blazing Sword, whose victories as a 2-year-old at Calder in the Florida Stallion Dr. Fager and Affirmed Stakes were merely an appetizer. From ages 3-6, Blazing Sword competed in graded stakes from coast to coast, winning the Grade II Washington Park Handicap at Arlington, the Grade III Widener at Gulfstream and the Grade III Calder Derby and finishing second or third in eight other graded races, including the Grade I Super Derby and the Grade I Hollywood Derby.
This One’s for Mel’s victory brought back some fond memories; the 3-year-old gelding is a full brother to Fly by Phil, O’Connell’s 2010 Grade III Tropical Park Derby winner.
“I’m very proud that I’ve been with most of my owners for the long haul,” said O’Connell, citing the late John Franks and the Blackacre Farms, Inc., operation of Larry and Vicki Stumpf, along with Campbell and his Stonehedge Farm South operation.
“But I only have one or two horses with most of my owners, and they all played a part in my getting to 1,500. It’s an accumulation of a lot of hard work, not only by myself but my grooms and hotwalkers, plus having people put their faith in you to run their horse where it can be effective.”
O’Connell’s top assistants include Tampa Bay Downs-based Brian Smeak, who has been with her 15 years, and Calder-based Jose Saucariso.
March was a month to remember all the way around for O’Connell. Three weeks ago, she was one of nine new members elected to the Calder Hall of Fame. O’Connell is the only woman to capture a training title at Calder, achieving that feat during the 2009-10 meet. She will be recognized at the Miami track in a ceremony on April 13.
O’Connell felt special satisfaction that her long-awaited victory came at Tampa Bay Downs, where she began galloping horses in 1976 before starting her own stable in 1981. She has won two training titles here: the first in 1998-99 with 26 victories, and in 2009-10 with 51 victories (tied with Jamie Ness).
“Tampa has gotten progressively tougher over the years, and with the great turf course, there has been an influx of horses from many of the top south Florida stables that makes it even tougher,” O’Connell said.
“For me personally, winning 1,500 races is a huge milestone. I don’t have one relative in the horse business, and when I came onto the racetrack, women weren’t big in racing in any capacity. I’ve just been very fortunate to work in a profession I’m passionate about, and I feel blessed and very lucky.”
From the standpoint of fans and handicappers, consistency has been O’Connell’s trademark. Every year from 1999-2012 her horses have earned at least $1-million, with a career-best $1,770,207 last year. For the record, she has 1,535 second-place finishes and 1,455 thirds.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m.
Tampa Bay Downs 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.