Tuesday marks the official start of spring, with an increased emphasis on 3-year-olds and the buildup to the Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Only a select few make it to Louisville. In fact, many Thoroughbreds never get to the races by the spring of their sophomore seasons, due to physical setbacks or immaturity or their connections’ belief in bringing a horse along slowly in hopes of a long career.
Rarely, though, do horses wait until their 6-year-old seasons to make their debut. Fewer still win their first race at that advanced age, but Tampa Bay Downs owner-trainer Lori Smock has gotten to the winner’s circle twice this meeting with her gray mare, Down the Roof.
The Kentucky-bred won Sunday’s fifth race for $8,000 claiming fillies and mares that had never won twice at a distance of five-and-a-half furlongs by a length-and-a-half from 8-5 favorite Zippin Along.
Down the Roof is a daughter of Grade I winner Down the Aisle, out of the unraced Native Regent mare Raise Your Queen. Apprentice jockey Erik Barbaran rode Down the Roof for his second victory on the card. She paid $7.80 to win.
Smock purchased Down the Roof privately last summer with few expectations, but with the hope she could get her to the races.
As a 4-year-old, Down the Roof injured herself at Ellis Park in Kentucky by acting up in the paddock before a race, forcing her previous owner to scratch her and put her competitive career on hold.
“She was pretty sound, and most of her problems were mental,” Smock said. “So I thought if we could get her schooled enough in the paddock, she would be OK. We just have to keep her on the move when we’re saddling her. It was just coming over here and schooling her three or four times and finding out what it is that makes her happy to get a saddle on.”
With help from her assistant Mandy Green, who gets on Down the Roof in the mornings, Smock prepared Down the Roof for her first race Jan. 21 at Tampa Bay Downs. She drew off to a two-and-a-half length victory under jockey Fernando De La Cruz in the $8,000 maiden claiming race going five-and-a-half furlongs at odds of 14-1.
After finishing sixth and fifth in her next two starts – she was fractious in the paddock March 2, as a 9-10 favorite – Down the Roof was manageable enough Sunday to avoid expending too much energy before the race.
“The last time she wasn’t quite as good, because they stood her still to get her saddled and she didn’t care for that and kind of threw a fit,” Smock explained. “So today we had her on the move the while time saddling her, and she was pretty good.
“It was a project just to make sure she would get to the races safely because of her issues getting cut up in the paddock at Ellis. But she showed me enough galloping and breezing her that it looked like she could break her maiden and be competitive, at least on the bottom (level). She genuinely tries pretty hard, and you run them where they can win.”
And sometimes, they keep rewarding you, even if they’ll never be at the center of the average fan’s spring focus.
“She’s good right now,” Smock said. “Sometimes they end up having a longer career when they get started late.”
Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness won his fifth consecutive race at the track Sunday with 4-year-old filly Willa Wando, who won the 10th race as the 1-2 favorite. Willa Wando is owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and was ridden by leading jockey Leandro Goncalves, who posted two victories on the card.
Tampa Bay Downs embarks on its spring schedule next week, with live racing on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (except Easter Sunday, April 8, and Wednesday, May 2) through the duration of the meeting. Wednesday’s card begins with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. There is a Super High 5 carryover of $7,070.45.
The track is open every day except Easter Sunday for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.
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