Three years after setting a then-track record in winning the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint on Florida Cup Day 2011, 8-year-old gelding Sneaking Uponyou amazed even his owner and trainer, Jamie Ness, with a jaw-dropping, six-and-a-quarter length victory today in 1:09.08, only .41 seconds off It’s Me Mom’s stakes and track record.
Sneaking Uponyou’s powerful victory under jockey Huber Villa-Gomez was the top highlight of numerous outstanding performances during the 12th annual Florida Cup for registered Florida-breds, Tampa Bay Downs’ celebration of the Sunshine State’s excellence in breeding and raising Thoroughbreds.
Without further delay, here is a recap of the six Florida Cup races in order of their running before a festive Tampa Bay Downs crowd of 6,278.
$75,000 OCALA BREEDERS’ SALES SOPHOMORE STAKES
The game plan worked to perfection for Rustlewood Farm homebred Prudhoe Bay, who came flying late to nip Brothersofthetime by a head. Race favorite C. Zee finished another neck back in third in a driving three-horse finish.
“We wanted a clean break, we wanted to keep out of trouble and we didn’t want to be too close to the pace, but we wanted to be close enough to be in contention,” said George Russell, who owns Rustlewood with his wife, Karen. “That’s certainly what happened. The jockey (Angel Serpa) did a great job.”
Prudhoe Bay is by Songandaprayer out of the Russells’ broodmare, Cameron Crazies. He paid $14.60 to win while completing the seven furlongs in 1:22.58. Prudhoe Bay is trained by Edward Plesa, Jr., who celebrated his fifth Florida Cup Day victory from south Florida.
“He called us right after the finish to congratulate us,” said George Russell, who celebrated his third Florida Cup Day victory with Karen as breeders.
“Mr. Plesa told me he thought the colt would run well today, but not to ask him for run too soon,” Serpa said. “Coming out of the inside post, we didn’t want him to use his speed. I got him to relax and let the others make the pace.
“I knew they were going fast up front, so I waited with him until the turn. I found a lane for him entering the stretch and he went after the leaders like a good horse will,” Serpa dded.
It was Prudhoe Bay’s third victory from five starts and second stakes triumph; in January, he won the $50,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sprint at the Ocala Training Center track before a decent fourth in the Grade II Swale at Gulfstream.
“That was more like his style today than his last race,” George Russell said.
Karen Russell named the colt after the Alaskan city that is home to the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. “I was watching Ice Road Truckers one night when I couldn’t sleep, and it jumped out at me,” she said. “There have actually been four horses (and a Quarter Horse) named Prudhoe Bay, but this is the best.”
$75,000 SKINNY’S PLACE OF ANNA MARIA ISLAND SOPHOMORE TURF
Co-owners Rich Averill and Clark C. Freeman experienced a moment of panic when their 3-year-old gelding Ex Pirate appeared to bolt while heading up the backstretch on the lead in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Skinny’s Place of Anna Maria Island Sophomore Turf.
The misstep, which may have been caused by a small flock of birds or just Ex Pirate’s inexperience, caused him to surrender the lead to Go Go Romeo. But when Ex Pirate and winning jockey Daniel Centeno got back on track, there was no stopping his momentum. He rolled to a two-and-three-quarter-length victory from I’m the Lucky One while never being threatened. Best Plan rallied late to be third, with betting favorite Courtesan fourth.
As circumstances would have it, Freeman is the owner of race sponsor Skinny’s Place, voted to prepare the No. 1 burger on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.
The victory was a record eighth in Florida Cup competition for Centeno and a series-high fifth for breeder Glen Hill Farm, which raced Ex Pirate in his first four starts before he was claimed by Averill Racing and Freeman for $32,000 from an impressive maiden-breaking victory here on Jan. 17 on the turf. The son of Malibu Moon-Island Hop, by Dynaformer, is now 3-for-8 lifetime with three seconds.
Ex Pirate paid $7.60 to win. His time was 1:43.42. He is trained by Ralph Ziadie; local trainer Dennis Griffith handled the saddling duties in Ziadie’s absence.
“I had bet on him the first time he ran here (Dec. 21, a second-place finish) so he was in my virtual stable,” Averill said. “He was entered for $35,000 at Gulfstream and I was going to claim him, but he was scratched and entered here. He was on my bet-back list, and I knew to claim him the next time he ran.
“I was very surprised how strong he ran through the stretch, but that probably was because the fractions were so slow,” Averill added. “I told (Centeno) in the paddock it didn’t look like there was a lot of speed, and if he was on the lead to go with it.”
“It wasn’t really the plan for him to be on the lead,” Centeno said. “He came off the pace for me the last time (a head victory on March 14), and he had never been on the lead so early before. The pace seemed slow and I was trying to get him to relax, but he wanted to go.
“He pulled off the inside in the backstretch, but then got back in hand running with (Go Go Romeo). He responded really well when I asked him for run entering the stretch,” Centeno said.
$75,000 PLEASANT ACRES STALLIONS DISTAFF TURF
Both Cuppy Cake and Lori’s Store made decisive moves in the stretch of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, but when Lori’s Store drifted out into Cuppy Cake – halting that one’s progress and causing a chain-reaction with a fast-closing E B Ryder – the tote board numbers started blinking.
Lori’s Store finished a half-length ahead of Cuppy Cake, but Tampa Bay Downs stewards disqualified the first-place finisher for interference that halted Cuppy Cake’s momentum in late stretch. E B Ryder was moved up to second and Lori’s Store placed third.
The victory was the fourth in 15 starts for Cuppy Cake, a 4-year-old filly by Olmodavor out of Cindy Woo Who, by Thunder Gulch. She was bred by Thomas L. Croley and is owned by his Roman Hill Farm. Anthony Pecoraro is the winning trainer.
Ricardo Feliciano rode Cuppy Cake. She paid $26.20 to win after completing the distance in a fraction off Lori’s Store’s time of 1:41.47.
The winning connections accepted the hardware from Pleasant Acres Farm owners Joseph and Helen Barbazon.
“I guess if she doesn’t get bumped, she’s got to win,” Pecoraro said of Cuppy Cake. “She’s not a big, heavy filly, and she got bumped pretty good.
“I took her to Calder after her last start (a runner-up effort here on March 9) because I like to train her over that deeper sand, and she has really been training well,” Pecoraro added. “She had a minor injury early in her 3-year-old year, so I gave her some time and she started maturing.”
Cuppy Cake is now 3-for-5 with a second on the Tampa Bay Downs turf, each victory with Feliciano in the saddle.
“We hit the stretch really moving and I thought we would get there, but the leader drifted out into us and pushed me out into (E B Ryder),” Feliciano said. “She’s a handy filly to ride, so I knew when I asked her she would put in a run. I wasn’t surprised when they moved us up.”
A visibly disappointed Brian Pedroza, aboard Lori’s Store, accepted the stewards’ verdict. “She drifted out in the stretch at the same place she did the last time,” he said, “but there wasn’t a horse outside us that time. This is a tough way to lose a race.”
$75,000 STONEHEDGE FARM SOUTH SOPHOMORE FILLIES
If the winner’s-circle scene had a familiar feel after the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, it was because trainer William Kaplan was featured for the second year in a row. In 2013, he won the race with 26-1 shot Putitinmypocket; on Saturday, Kaplan scored with Holiday Magic, who sped the seven furlongs in 1:23.38 under jockey Juan Leyva (the race was hand-timed due to a timer malfunction).
Holiday Magic was three-and-three-quarter lengths better than Quick as a Bunny, with race favorite Legal Laura holding on for third. The winner was bred by NTS Stable, Inc., and is owned by Pinnacle Racing Stables, Jack H. Hendricks and Roger L. Justice.
Pinnacle is a partnership headed by Adam Lazarus and was also co-owner with Kaplan of Putitinmypocket. Lazarus and Kaplan’s best horse was Musical Romance, who won the 2011 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs under Leyva.
Holiday Magic paid $16.20 to win. She is now 3-for-9 lifetime, including the $85,000 Brave Raj Stakes at Calder as a 2-year-old. The addition of blinkers seemed to benefit Holiday Magic, who was focused throughout.
“She has only been off the board twice, and those were both at Gulfstream against very tough company, but she’s been doing very well,” Kaplan said. “I always thought she could do very well sprinting, and we may keep her there now, like Musical Romance.”
Leyva is Kaplan’s go-to rider, and he was exceptional on Holiday Magic, allowing Legal Laura and My Sweet Dove to burn themselves out with rapid fractions. On the turn, Leyva moved Holiday Magic inside, pointed her toward an opening and took off.
“He was sitting behind horses up the backstretch and had a big hold on her,” Kaplan said. “He did a nice job getting her to relax and had a ton of horse, and he made a very deft move going to the inside with her, like he did with Musical Romance. That’s what makes Juan special.”
“She can be very aggressive early, but with blinkers on, it seemed to help her focus,” said Leyva, who also won on Putitinmypocket. “She broke well and I was able to take her back and drop over. Getting to the stretch, I asked her for run but there were a couple of the early leaders outside, so I dropped her over to the rail and she really responded.”
$75,000 TAMPA TURF CLASSIC
Class told the tale for Glen Hill Farm homebred Old Time Hockey, a 5-year-old gelding whose career ledger included a victory in the Grade II La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar as a 3-year-old. His fifth victory in 21 starts raised his career bankroll to $337,318.
But trainer Tom Proctor’s long-time assistant, Nicky Carrillo, experienced some anxious moments before he could begin celebrating the Smarty Jones-Grat, by A.P. Indy, offspring’s triumph.
Under veteran jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., Old Time Hockey found his best stride late, and it appeared long shot Bad Debt and Racing Aptitude would duke it out to the wire. Old Time Hockey’s patented flying finish utilized every bit of the nine-furlong distance before he won by three-quarters of a length.
“Coming out of the No. 1 post with a closer can be tricky,” Allen said. “We were still well back looking for room on the final turn.”
But Old Time Hockey was running strongest of all at the wire. Then, however, Carrillo – who had suffered earlier today when Glen Hill Farm’s Lori’s Store was disqualified after finishing first in the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf – felt his heart skip when an objection was announced.
But it was against runner-up Bad Debt, not Old Time Hockey, and not upheld. Let the festivities begin. “I thought it was us again for a minute,” Carrillo said.
The victory gave Leonard Lavin’s Glen Hill a Florida Cup-record sixth victory as both a breeder and owner and was Proctor’s sixth as a trainer, breaking a tie for first place with Hall of Fame conditioner William Mott and Edward Plesa, Jr.
“I had him here about a month-and-a-half before his first race here” (an easy March 7 victory in a race taken off the turf), Carrillo said. “He’s a real nice horse to be around, and he has been doing even better since his first race here. I knew someone was going to have to come with a nice horse to beat us.”
Carrillo was confident Old Time Hockey would find his best stride when it counted. His time for the nine furlongs was 1:48.87, and he paid $5.20 as the betting favorite.
“That’s the way he likes to run, from behind,” he said. “If he is on the lead, he doesn’t finish as well.”
“There were a lot of horses in front of us, but when I got a lane in mid-stretch I went for it,” the 49-year-old Allen said. “He was more than good enough.”
The victory on Old Time Hockey was one of three on the card for Allen, who moved back ahead of Antonio Gallardo 91-90 in their ding-dong race for top jockey honors.
$75,000 HILTON GARDEN INN/HAMPTON INN & SUITES SPRINT
It might not be 100 percent accurate to say 8-year-old gelding Sneaking Uponyou is getting better with the passage of years. But after he sprinted away from a quality field to win the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint by six-and-a-quarter lengths, it’s clear the old pro hasn’t lost much.
Three years after he first won this race in a then-track record time of 1:08.69 for six furlongs, Sneaking Uponyou flashed his heels to his rivals in 1:09.08. He improved to 10-for-46 lifetime and the winner’s share of $45,000 raised his career earnings to $459,959.
The son of Snuck In-Chestnut Game, by Dahar, was bred by McLaughlin Family Limited Partnership. He was claimed as a 2-year-old in 2008 from his third lifetime start, at Hawthorne, by Tampa Bay Downs perennial leading trainer Jamie Ness, who owns the veteran campaigner with his wife Mandy under their Jagger, Inc., banner.
Huber Villa-Gomez rode Sneaking Uponyou in both Florida Cup Sprint victories. Sneaking Uponyou also won both the Pelican Stakes and Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in 2010, the latter also under Villa-Gomez.
Sneaking Uponyou paid $18.80 to win. His previous start had been a solid second to Our Double Play here in the seven-furlong Super Stakes on Feb. 22, a race Ness described as probably the best of his career.
Grade III winner and 2013 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore champ City of Weston rallied well to be second, a neck ahead of race favorite Evolution Rocks, with Cajun Breeze another neck back in fourth.
“I’m really proud of this horse,” Ness said. “I’m tickled. Huber knew what to do, he put him on the lead and it was basically over. This horse has just been constant for this long. There was pressure on him early, but he’s a front-runner and you can’t take that away from him. They say speed kills, and it did today.”
Villa-Gomez, who was injured earlier in the meeting but is back to 100 percent health, rode Sneaking Uponyou with confidence and savvy. “I had expected there would be more speed outside of us and Mr. Ness told me not to take hold of him early,” Villa-Gomez said. “But we broke well and we were in front.
“He knows how to do the job, so I waited with him on the lead and then asked him for run nearing the stretch and he came away. He is a great horse and a real pleasure to ride – he makes no mistakes,” Villa-Gomez added.
“It ain’t easy,” Ness said when asked how he has kept Sneaking Uponyou at this level for so long. “But I know all of his quirks and habits. He’s had some bumps and bruises along the way, but that probably has prolonged his career.”
“LIVE IT UP CHALLENGE.” Glenn Wilson of nearby Westchase, Fla., who has been attending Tampa Bay Downs with his wife Debbie on a regular basis since 1998, is the winner of the inaugural “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest sponsored by Tampa Bay Downs.
As the grand-prize winner and the handicapper who picked the most winners (19) during the duration of the contest, Wilson earns $1,500 and a seat at the 2015 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in January in Las Vegas.
Amazingly, Wilson was the only handicapper among 798 entrants to survive the “Live It Up Challenge” through 41 days of competition. Only twice did he fail to select a horse that finished in the money in one of that day’s two contest races.
The contest ran from Feb. 1 through today. Players made a mythical $2 win-place-show wager on a single horse in one of each day’s two challenge races, with their bankroll accruing throughout based on official pari-mutuel payoffs. Strikes were assessed for an out-of-the-money finish, with three strikes eliminating a player (each player received two bonus strikes, or lifelines, during the contest).
“It was a lot of fun and what was different about it is that for the first time in a number of years, I was able to concentrate on Tampa Bay Downs every day rather than four or five tracks at a time,” Wilson said.
“It was one of those things where I think the contest kind of leaned toward my conservative style and protecting lifelines. I wasn’t looking for value or winners, particularly; I was looking for the horse I thought was most likely to finish in the money in one of the two challenge races. It is a lot harder than you’d think,” he added.
Wilson works for a large health-care systems company in its human resources department. He has been handicapping horse races since he was a teenager and first attended the races at Penn National when he was 14.
ODDS AND ENDS. Jockey Dean Butler swept both halves of the early daily double on today’s card. In the first race, he was aboard 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Dash of Dazzle for breeder-owner Bruno Schickedanz and trainer Aldana Gonzalez. Butler won the second on another state-bred, 5-year-old mare Blameitonthegoose, bred by JC Thoroughbreds Corp., owned by JC Thoroughbreds and Juan H. Chavez, Jr., and trained by Lynne Scace.
As mentioned previously, Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode three winners. In addition to Old Time Hockey, he won the sixth race on 4-year-old gelding Eclipticalswildcat for owners Victor Scodius, Kenneth Hall and John Fitzpatrick and trainer Robert Jeffries and the 11th on the turf on 7-year-old gelding Senor Habanero for owner Donald K. Love and trainer Pamela Edel.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 p.m. 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.