It had been almost two years since Roman Tiger last visited the winner’s circle, but the wait proved worth it Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs for the 7-year-old gelding’s owner and trainer, Dennis Manning.
Rallying on the inside through a thrilling stretch drive, Roman Tiger caught pace setter and fellow long shot El Commodore in the final jump to record a nose victory in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.
Roman Tiger, who broke from the No. 1 post position in the 12-horse field, finished in 1:40.42, less than a second off the track record.
Angel Serpa rode the winner, who paid $59.40 and keyed an exacta payoff of $1,393.60 with 33-1 shot El Commodore.
Swift Warrior closed rapidly to be third, a half-length back of El Commodore and a half-length ahead of Allie’s Event. The 1-5-4 trifecta paid $8,996 and the $1 1-5-4-11 superfecta return was $141,764.
Lentenor, a full brother to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, was fifth, with 4-1 favorite Moryba seventh.
It was only the third lifetime victory in 24 starts for Roman Tiger, a Florida-bred son of Tiger Ridge-Sunny’s Freckles who Manning purchased for $20,000 as a 2-year-old at the Timonium sale in Maryland after he was bought back by the consignor. “My client didn’t care for his pedigree and I had already committed to buy him, so I took him for myself,” Manning said.
The $90,000 winner’s share boosted Roman Tiger’s career earnings to $411,470. As a 3-year-old, he finished third in the Jersey Derby and second in the Grade III Kent Stakes, and as a 5-year-old he was second and third in a pair of Grade III races at Monmouth. Besides his maiden victory, his only other triumph came in April of 2010 in the Island Whirl Florida Thoroughbred Charities Stakes at Gulfstream.
Interestingly, Roman Tiger was the only Tampa Bay Stakes entrant who has made all his career starts on the grass. Manning also won the 2009 Tampa Bay Stakes with Victory Alleged, who at the time was an 8-year-old gelding owned by Mac Fehsenfeld.
“I got nervous when (Roman Tiger) stumbled at the break, but he regained himself and after he went by the stands the first time, Angel had him in perfect position,” Manning said. “I told him to save all the ground on the inside and sit five or six lengths off the lead, and when you ask him, he’ll run. Then it was a matter of whether he was good enough, and today he was.”
Roman Tiger had finished sixth in his previous start, the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream, but was beaten only 5 ¼ lengths by division star Little Mike. “He got a really bad break, and Paco (Lopez) almost fell off leaving the gate,” Manning said. “I thought he ran well recovering off of that.”
But Manning has been around long enough to know the breaks usually even out. “I got lucky, and God was shining down on me today,” he said.
Serpa, who recorded his first graded victory, had learned earlier of the death of his grandmother Friday, but vowed to honor her memory by riding Roman Tiger to victory.
“I knew my best chance was to stay put and save every inch of ground I could,” Serpa said. “Some of the best horses in the race, I thought, were going to be stuck far outside. My horse was very comfortable down the backstretch and really wanted to do more, so I just let him pick his way forward and when we got to the top of the stretch, it looked like there would be an opening for him and I asked him.
“Just for a second the hole seemed to close, but it opened up again right away and he fired up inside every step,” Serpa said. “I don’t feel lucky. I think I had the best horse.”
So did Greg Griffith, who trains Kentucky-bred 5-year-old El Commodore for the Steinbrenner family’s Kinsman Stable. Danny Coa rode the game runner-up son of El Prado.
“He tried his heart out,” Griffith said. “He got sick last year, so we gave him some time off and he grew up a little bit. He can hold that speed now. We’re very happy with his performance.”
In the previous race, the popular 4-year-old filly It’s Me Mom was caught in the final strides by Drake Smith’s White Merlot, who set a Tampa Bay Downs track record of 1:16.04 for the six-and-a-half furlong distance. It’s Me Mom had won four consecutive starts, including last month’s Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream, but had never been beyond six furlongs and was forced to concede eight pounds to the winner in the $30,000 overnight handicap.
Robert Smith, Drake’s father, trains White Merlot, who won for the fourth time in 11 starts. Pablo Morales rode the winner, who paid $14.80. It’s Me Mom set fractions of 22.29 for the quarter-mile and 44.93 for the half and herself matched the previous track record of 1:16.09.
“People were trying to get me to scratch away from the ‘Mom,’ but I knew my horse would love 6 ½ or even seven furlongs and the other filly might not quite be up to it,” said Robert Smith. “We’ll give her a freshening now and go back to Calder and maybe point her for the Princess Rooney.”
Morales was equal measures surprised and ecstatic about the victory against It’s Me Mom and his friend and mentor, jockey Willie Martinez.
“Going into the turn, my horse was going very relaxed,” Morales said. “She loves following horses, and I knew she was going to try. When it was time to go and I started riding, I could see that other horse was not drawing off. My horse has such a big heart, I knew she would try her eyeballs out. I feel a little bad for Willie, but I’m happy.”
A long shot won the first division of the Tampa Turf Test on Saturday, run at a distance of about a mile-and-an-eighth. In the Filly and Mare Division, run as the fifth race, 4-year-old Paris by Night caught pace setter Lucky Lass in the shadow of the wire, notching her second turf victory of the current meeting.
Paris by Night, a daughter of Touch Gold-Love and Kris’s, is owned by TTD Partners and trained by Bernell Rhone and was ridden by Dean Butler. She paid $30.80.
A field of nine geldings contested the other division two races later. Let It Rock, a 7-year-old owned by Tom Gregerson and trained by Chad Stewart, proved best, winning under jockey Danny Coa. The Florida-bred son of Trippi paid $11.40.
Both races offered $23,000 in purse money.
Jockey agents soon may be getting in line to appear on track announcer Richard Grunder’s ‘Morning Glory Club,’ held each Saturday at 10 a.m. through Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day on the first floor of the grandstand.
Saturday’s special guest, jockey Scott Spieth, rode two winners Saturday and added a second and a third, while also finishing fourth on Allie’s Event in the Tampa Bay Stakes, a week after ‘Morning Glory Club’ guest Angel Serpa won three races on the card.
Spieth visited the winner’s circle after winning the second race, a 6 ½-furlong maiden claiming event, on 4-year-old filly Sweet Joan ($14.40) for trainer Wayne Mogge. Two races later, in a seven-furlong claiming affair, Spieth scored aboard 4-year-old filly Harlan’s Pepper ($5.60) for conditioner Reid Nagle.
In Saturday’s first race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth claiming event for horses 4-and-up, trainer Rosemary Homeister, Sr. and daughter-jockey Rosemary Homeister, Jr. finished one-two, with Mom’s 5-year-old horse Father Lucey besting 5-year-old gelding Albany Road.
The winner was ridden by Irwin Rosendo, father of the third generation of Homeisters, 6-month-old Victoria Rose. Father Lucey paid $30.20 to win.
Live racing resumes Sunday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. Sunday is Kids and Family Day, with free fun, games and pony rides in the Backyard Picnic Area. There will also be an appearance by track mascot Mouse, the Miniature Horse who is preparing to celebrate her 6th birthday Tuesday and has graciously consented to pose for photographs.
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