When trainer Wesley Ward says “We have big dreams” for Noble Cornerstone, no elaboration is needed.
The New York-homebred is one of eight 3-year-old colts and geldings entered in Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, scheduled for a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt track. And like his Davis rivals, Noble Cornerstone has a chance to start proving himself worthy of being mentioned as a contender for this year’s spring classics, starting with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 3 at Churchill Downs.
The Davis, one of three stakes worth a combined $500,000 on the 12-race Festival Preview Day card, is the ninth race, with an approximate 4:25 p.m. post time. The mile-and-40-yard Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies is the eighth race, with the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Stakes for older horses at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf course slated as the 10th race.
The Davis is the first leg of the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus, with the owner(s) of the winner earning an additional $1-million if the horse goes on to win the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 and the Kentucky Derby. The winning jockey will draw the name of a fan who has picked the Davis winner to become eligible for the $100,000 Lambholm South Fan Bonus payday on May 3.
At odds of 7-2, the My Meadowview Farm-bred and owned Noble Cornerstone is the second morning-line choice in a race that appears wide-open. After breaking his maiden by more than five lengths in a six-furlong sprint at Aqueduct in November, Noble Cornerstone finished a fast-closing second to Louies Flower in the 1-mile Remington Springboard Mile Stakes in Oklahoma.
Ward, the son of Tampa Bay Downs trainer Dennis Ward, has named Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux to ride Noble Cornerstone.
“He’s a big, rangy horse I took my time with, and I’m fortunate enough to have an owner (My Meadowview Farm’s Leonard Riggio) who let me do so,” Ward said. “We’re hoping those (Derby) dreams come to fruition, but we’re taking one step at a time with him. He has done everything we’ve asked and is training super, and I think he’s a horse who will want all of the (Davis) distance and even more.”
Ward said he plans to remove the blinkers from Noble Cornerstone for the Davis. “We’re looking to get him to settle and come with a big run the last part of the race,” Ward said.
Among Noble Cornerstone’s challengers are two colts trained by Todd Pletcher, Let’s Go Stable’s Harpoon and WinStar Farm LLC and Twin Creeks Racing Stables, LLC’s Vinceremos. Harpoon is the more accomplished of the two, breaking his maiden by five-and-a-half lengths at Gulfstream on Dec. 26 at a mile after three consecutive runner-up efforts, including one last October at Belmont to recent Grade II Holy Bull Stakes winner Cairo Prince.
“These are horses that are improving and have the right kind of makeup to compete in a race like this,” said Pletcher, honored earlier this month with a record sixth Eclipse Award as North America’s Outstanding Trainer. “Like all 3-year-olds, they have to keep improving to move forward.
“I’m very pleased with both of them, especially Harpoon, when you consider he was second to a horse that is probably the early (Kentucky) Derby favorite and to win the way he did last time.”
Luis Saez will be back aboard Harpoon after winning on him last time, while Edgar Prado has the return assignment on Vinceremos.
Pletcher has sent out four Sam F. Davis Stakes winners since 2006, all of which went on to even further success. His 2006 Davis winner, Bluegrass Cat, finished second in the (then)-Grade III Tampa Bay Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont and the Travers, and won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth. The following year, his Any Given Saturday followed his Davis score with a second to eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby and victories in the Grade II Dwyer, the Haskell and the Grade II Brooklyn.
Rule and Brethren won the Davis for Pletcher in 2010 and 2011, after it achieved Grade III status. Rule won two more stakes, including the Grade II Monmouth Cup as a 5-year-old. Brethren managed to add the Evangeline Mile Handicap as a 5-year-old last summer.
The 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Davis is Klaravich Stables, Inc., and W.H. Lawrence’s colt Cousin Stephen, who is trained by Chad Brown and will be ridden by Daniel Centeno. After breaking his maiden going a mile-and-an-eighth at Aqueduct in November by seven-and-a-half lengths, Cousin Stephen faded to fifth in a talent-laden first-level allowance at Gulfstream Jan. 3. A post-race examination showed significant mucus in his airway, but Brown is confident that won’t be a factor in the Davis.
“It’s been cleaned up and hopefully he will move forward off that effort,” Brown said. “I do think this race is a good fit for him. He has already won impressively going nine furlongs, so I don’t think he’ll have a problem as the distance gets longer. It does seem like most of these horses are trying to get to the next level, and I’m hoping (Cousin Stephen) will take to the track and get a good trip.”
The other Davis entrants are stakes winner Asserting Bear, trained by Reade Baker and to be ridden by Joseph Rocco, Jr.; Matador, trained by Mark Casse, Julien Leparoux aboard; supplemental entry School On a Hill, trained by Wayne Catalano, leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., in the irons; and Imaginethatmom, trained by Michael Yates, with Abdiel Jaen riding.
In addition to his Davis entrants, Pletcher trains one of the top contenders in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Stakes, which is the 10th race. Assuming the weather improves overnight, as is forecast, the Tampa Bay Stakes will remain on the turf. A full field of 12 is expected to compete.
Pletcher has the morning-line 2-1 favorite in Wertheimer and Frere’s 6-year-old Ireland-bred horse Salto, who has finished first or second in nine of 18 career starts and was a strong second in the El Prado Stakes at Gulfstream on yielding turf on Dec. 28. Saez is the jockey.
The Suncoast is the eighth race on the card, with a full field of 10 sophomore lasses expected to go postward. The 3-1 morning-line favorite is W.S. Farish and Skara Glen Stable’s Comme Chez Soi, trained by Michael Matz and to be ridden by Rocco.
Saturday’s festivities begin at 10 a.m. with track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club show. Admission is free, and attendees receive donuts, coffee and grandstand passes and can watch horses work out. Grunder’s special guest is Marty McGee, the Eclipse Award-winning journalist from the Daily Racing Form.
Saturday is also the first day of the track’s free “Live It Up Challenge” online handicapping contest. The deadline to enter is 10:30 a.m., and the contest offers $3,000 in cash prizes and a seat at the 2015 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship.
Jockey Angel Serpa swept the early daily double today, winning the first race on 6-year-old mare Learn the Lingo for owner Amaty Racing Stables and trainer Herman Wilensky and adding the second on 7-year-old gelding My Charming Clyde for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and trainer Jamie Ness.
Midwest and Ness also won the ninth race with 7-year-old mare Seaside, ridden by Antonio Gallardo.
Beginning next week, Tampa Bay Downs will conduct Thoroughbred racing five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. 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.