Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness sticks his toe into deeper water Saturday when he saddles Midwest Thoroughbreds’ 5-year-old Kentucky-bred gelding Wiki in the 21st running of the $60,000 Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs.
And when Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day rolls around March 10, there is a decent possibility Ness will jump in with both feet by starting Midwest’s 5-year-old mare Silver Prism in the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares at about a mile-and-an-eighth on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course.
The Hillsborough, the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds and the $100,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes highlight the Festival Day card.
Silver Prism, who broke her maiden on the dirt at Tampa Bay Downs as a 3-year-old, is 7-for-9 in her career and 4-for-4 on the Tampa Bay Downs grass course. But she has never competed against the likes of graded-stakes winners such as Zagora, Marketing Mix, Denomination, Snow Top Mountain, Smart Sting, Heavenly Landing and Hooh Why, all being considered for the Hillsborough.
Ness says the final decision on Silver Prism’s next start will be made following her next workout. She worked five furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs last week in 1:03. Silver Prism has not raced since June and a victory in a starter allowance on the all-weather track at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.
“She got sore in the back end after that, but nothing serious,” Ness said. “As a 3-year-old, we gave her time off when she got sore and she came back good (3-for-3 as a 4-year-old). Hopefully she will come back with a little longer campaign this year.
“She has worked a few times here and is doing well, so right now everything is a go. We’re not 100 percent yet on entering (the Hillsborough). If she works good and comes back good and (Midwest Thoroughbreds owner) Richard Papiese thinks I’m confident in giving it a shot, we’re going to go.
“She is too good a horse to enter thinking ‘Oh, maybe she is not quite ready,’ “ Ness added. “You have to be 100 percent certain on a race like that. If we’re not, you’ll see us next time, but if we enter it means I think we’re ready.”
Ness has no doubts Wiki is prepared to shine in the Challenger. Wiki, who will be ridden by leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Leandro Goncalves, won his previous race Feb. 4 at the Challenger distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth in a snappy 1:43 while defeating two of today’s rivals, Fort Larned and I’m Steppin’ It Up. Wiki is 7-for-15 lifetime with four seconds.
The Challenger field also includes the one-two finishers in last year’s Tampa Bay Derby, Watch Me Go and Crimson Knight; stakes winner Seruni, whose last effort at Churchill Downs in November resulted in a 6 ¼-length victory; and Calder stakes winner Imperial Czar.
“If Wiki runs back to his previous race, he’s going to be really hard to beat,” Ness said. “He is coming off a career-best race, and that is hard to duplicate. But he is doing really well, so we’ll take a shot. I expect him to run a big race.”
Wiki worked five furlongs Monday in 1:02 4/5.
Ness won with two of his three starters on Friday’s card, giving him 50 victories from 113 starters at the meeting (44.3 percent). He won the second race, a six-furlong starter allowance, with Midwest’s 7-year-old gelding Rich Hero, ridden by leading Tampa Bay Downs rider Leandro Goncalves.
Ness added the sixth race with 5-year-old gelding Nervous Marvin. Ricardo Feliciano was the jockey. Ness has finished atop the Tampa Bay Downs trainer standings five consecutive seasons, tying with Gerald Bennett last year and Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10.
Goncalves has won at least one race on 16 consecutive Tampa Bay Downs cards.
Pablo Morales strengthened his hold on fifth place in the jockey standings by riding three winners on Friday’s card. He now has 31 victories at the meeting.
Morales captured the third race on 14-1 shot Boss Lady for owner-trainer William Jurgens. Many veteran Tampa Bay Downs observers remember Jurgens as the trainer of Jilsie’s Gigalo, an amazing, stakes-winning Florida-bred gelding who won 45 of 136 starts in his 11-year racing career.
Morales then won the seventh on the turf on first-time starter Virginia Colony, a 3-year-old Theatrical colt, for owners Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone and trainer Christophe Clement and the eighth on 4-year-old gelding Funfaha for owner John Falcone and trainer Jane Cibelli.
Saturday’s card begins with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. The guest on track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club is Heather Craig, an assistant trainer for H. Graham Motion. The Morning Glory Club festivities begin at 10 a.m., with free coffee and donuts.
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.