Vinceremos and Harpoon, the 1-2 finishers in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes here on Feb. 1, head a collection of 18 Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-olds nominated for the 34th edition of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 at Tampa Bay Downs.
Pletcher’s sophomores are among 57 horses nominated to the Tampa Bay Derby, the showpiece of the track’s annual Festival Day celebration of the Thoroughbred.
Besides Vinceremos and Harpoon, Pletcher’s contingent of nominees includes Grade I Champagne Stakes winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana; Intense Holiday, who won Saturday’s Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds; and We Miss Artie, a Grade I winner as a 2-year-old.
Likely to join the Festival Day fun is well-regarded Virginia-bred Bond Holder, who broke his maiden last September in the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita and finished fourth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Betfair Hollywood.
Bond Holder (or, most likely, his connections) tweeted that his next start and first as a 3-year-old will be in the Tampa Bay Derby. He is owned by Reddam Racing LLC, trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Mario Gutierrez – the connections of 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another.
Another interesting Tampa Bay Derby nominee is the Florida-bred colt Yogi Berra, who broke his maiden Friday at Tampa Bay Downs for breeder-owner Jessica Steinbrenner’s Bach Stables and trainer Dennis Griffith.
The March 8 card also includes the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf and the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf.
By winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Vinceremos owners WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing became eligible for the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus. The $1-million will be paid if Vinceremos wins the Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 3.
Both Vinceremos and Harpoon worked out today at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach. Vinceremos breezed five furlongs in 1:01.70, while Harpoon was razor-sharp, going four furlongs in 47.95 seconds, which was fastest of 58 works at the half-mile distance.
Cousin Stephen, the third-place Davis finisher, is among three Tampa Bay Derby nominees from the barn of trainer Chad Brown. Cousin Stephen worked five furlongs Saturday at Palm Meadows in 1:01.25. The fourth-place Davis horse, the Mark Casse-trained Matador, bettered that, getting five furlongs Saturday in a minute flat, fastest of the 18 recorded workouts at that distance.
Lately, Ben Wheelock, the 80-year-old Hudson, Fla., resident eligible for the Lambholm South $100,000 Fan Bonus, has felt spry enough to breeze around the racetrack himself.
Wheelock’s name was drawn by winning Sam F. Davis Stakes jockey Edgar Prado from an approximate 300 fans who picked Vinceremos in the race. Wheelock will collect $100,000 if Vinceremos completes the three-race sweep of Davis, Tampa Bay Derby and Kentucky Derby.
“I don’t think Dad’s feet have hit the floor since,” said one of his daughters, Teresa Holmes (herself the Mrs. Maine Beauty Pageant winner in 1990).
Wheelock and his wife Carline, who have been together 60 years, and four other family members will be the guests of Tampa Bay Downs for the Tampa Bay Derby. A limousine will pick them up the morning of March 8 and they will have a table in the Skye Terrace. If Vinceremos wins, the Wheelocks will join the connections in the winner’s circle.
“I think about it a lot,” said Ben Wheelock, who competed as a harness racing driver for more than 30 years at Scarborough Downs and Bangor Raceway in Maine and owned Brownie’s Restaurant in Pittston, Maine. “It’s given me something to look forward to. We’re all excited – Carline and myself, our three daughters and son and our grandchildren in Maine.
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and ask myself if it’s a dream,” Wheelock added.
To raise the stakes even higher, the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby is part of Churchill Downs’ “Road to the Kentucky Derby” Championship Series points system that determines the 20 starters for the Run for the Roses, should more than that number pass the entry box.
The Tampa Bay Derby awards 50 points to the winner, 20 points for second, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. The Tampa Bay Derby has produced two of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners: the 2007 Oldsmar winner, Street Sense, and the 2010 third-place finisher, Super Saver.
With $700,000 in stakes purses alone, the Festival Day card will be the richest in Tampa Bay Downs’ 88-year history. The 31st renewal of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Florida Oaks – which was moved to the turf in 2011 – has attracted 54 nominees.
Among those nominated to the Florida Oaks are French-bred Testa Rossi, a Grade III winner and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf runner-up from the barn of Chad Brown; recent Suncoast Stakes winner Please Explain, trained by Tom Proctor; and Rosalind, twice Grade I-placed, including a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, for trainer Ken McPeek.
The rich history of the track’s showcase event for sophomore fillies includes the 2000 victory by Secret Status, who went on to win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks and Grade I Mother Goose and produced Dunkirk, the 2009 Belmont Stakes runner-up.
The 16th running of the Hillsborough Stakes, at a mile-and-an-eighth, has attracted 40 nominees. Two years ago, the then-5-year-old mare Zagora used a Hillsborough victory as a springboard to a Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf triumph and an Eclipse Award as Champion Grass Mare.
Most accomplished among this year’s Hillsborough nominees is 5-year-old mare Stephanie’s Kitten, bred and owned by the dual Eclipse Award-winning outfit of Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Chad Brown. If she runs, the Hillsborough will be her first start since July.
Stephanie’s Kitten is a multiple-Grade I winner who is 7-for-13 lifetime with earnings of $1,640,404. Other leading nominees include millionaire and multiple-Grade I winner Emollient, trained by William Mott; Grade I winner Centre Court, trained by George R. Arnold, II; and recent Grade III Endeavour Stakes winner Cloud Scapes, from the barn of H. Graham Motion.
Sunday’s action. Although the meeting is barely past the halfway point, it is not too early to pay close attention to jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr.’s quest to win a fifth riding title. The 49-year-old Allen rode three winners today, giving him 63 this season and a six-victory margin from runner-up Antonio Gallardo.
Allen won his first Tampa Bay Downs riding crown during the 1984-85 meeting and his most recent in 2010-11. Only Daniel Centeno, with five, has won more.
Allen won the third race on 4-year-old gelding Collin’s Smile for owner Richard Perkins and trainer David Hinsley. He added the fifth on the turf aboard 4-year-old filly Seeking Luck for owners John Tavormina and Bradley Thoroughbreds and trainer Tom Proctor and the sixth on 3-year-old filly Distinctive Humor for co-owners Robert G. Smith and Ashley Simmons and trainer Smith.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. 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.