Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South on Saturday shapes up as incredible day of competition, with four stakes, three graded, worth a combined $750,000; features Eclipse Award Champion Grass Male, World Approval, in Tampa Bay Stakes; apprentice Jose A. Bracho rides three winners today, one for former jockey Whitney Valls.
Jonathan Thomas leaned forward in a Grandstand box seat as his 3-year-old colt Catholic Boy commenced his workout on the Tampa Bay Downs dirt oval shortly after 9 a.m. today, accompanied by an unraced stablemate.
“Twelve-and-one (seconds for the first quarter-mile),” the trainer murmured via walkie-talkie to exercise rider Tracy Price. “That’s quick enough, guys. Just sit. Just sit tight.”
Thomas stayed silent until Catholic Boy flashed past the wire, having left his company behind. “Forty-nine-and-three (for the scheduled half-mile),” he cooed to Price, as she continued moving in perfect harmony with the handsome bay son of More Than Ready-Song of Bernadette, by Bernardini. “Just let him gallop out as he wants to.
“1:02 and 1. That’s great, Tracy – perfect,” Thomas said.
Thomas intended today’s 4-furlong breeze, which was officially clocked in 49.20 seconds, as a “maintenance” workout, coming eight days after a 5-furlong move here in 1:01 that indicated to the conditioner Catholic Boy embraces the sand-based main Oldsmar surface.
Now, all signs point to owner Robert V. LaPenta’s pride and joy making his 2018 debut in Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis, the showcase event of the track’s Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. After shipping in Saturday from Ocala, Catholic Boy will remained stabled on the grounds here through the race.
The 38th edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth event for 3-year-olds is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race, with the first four finishers earning points toward eligibility for the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 5.
Regular jockey Manuel Franco will again ride Catholic Boy. Confirmed challengers Saturday include Grade III winner Flameaway; multiple graded stakes-placed Hollywood Star; Todd Pletcher-trained allowance winner Vino Rosso; and Navy Armed Guard.
Other possibilities at press time included multiple-stakes winner Awaken, Mind Trappe and Septimius Severus.
The other stakes on Saturday’s card are the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward on the turf; the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes, for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward on the turf; and the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40 yards on the main track. The Suncoast is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race.
Thomas campaigned Catholic Boy, who might be the betting favorite come Saturday, to an outstanding 2-year-old campaign which included victories in the Grade III With Anticipation Stakes on Aug. 30 on the turf at Saratoga and the Grade II Remsen Stakes on Dec. 2 in his dirt debut at Aqueduct.
In that mile-and-an-eighth event, Catholic Boy finished four-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of Avery Island, a Kiaran McLaughlin-trainee who began his 3-year-old season Saturday with a victory in the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct.
Catholic Boy’s only defeat in four starts was a respectable fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 3 at Del Mar. Thomas said that after they arrived in southern California and Catholic Boy began training on the main track at Del Mar, he briefly wondered if the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on the dirt might have been a better spot because he was handling the surface so well.
But there are no regrets or second-guesses. Thomas is looking squarely ahead.
“Right now, our focus is on the Davis, and that will tell us what our next step will be,” Thomas said. “It is still very early in these 3-year-old’s lives and even though they are arguably on their most important path, career-wise, they are basically teenagers who are still growing. We’ve seen him put on some weight and carry some flesh this winter, and he is developing into a little more of a stronger horse.”
Thomas chose the Sam F. Davis as Catholic Boy’s next start for two major reasons: the Oldsmar oval’s burgeoning reputation as a track capable of moving forward Triple Crown race winners, including Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010) and last year’s Belmont Stakes presented by NYRABets winner, Tapwrit, and the timing between the Remsen, the Sam F. Davis and whatever Catholic Boy’s next start will be.
“The proof is in the pudding, that Tampa Bay Downs has been a good launch pad for a lot of good 3-year-olds,” Thomas said. “And the timing gives us a plethora of options – whether it’s back here for the (Grade II) Tampa Bay Derby (on March 10) or the Florida Derby (March 31 at Gulfstream Park), we have some options out of this race.
“It is very much one step at a time, one work at a time, one race at a time,” Thomas added. “But the timing made sense for us, and it’s just a matter of executing.”
While the Sam F. Davis always gets the lion’s share of attention on Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South, fans across the country will be paying close attention to the Tampa Bay Stakes, which marks the 2018 debut for 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding World Approval.
Trainer Mark Casse’s stable star, who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf last fall at Del Mar en route to an Eclipse Award as Champion Turf Male, breezed an easy 4 furlongs in 49 seconds Saturday at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach. He will be ridden Saturday by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
World Approval, a homebred racing for Charlotte C. Weber’s Live Oak Plantation, has made two previous ventures to Tampa Bay Downs, winning the Florida Cup Sophomore Turf in 2015 and last year’s EG Vodka Turf Classic.
Probable challengers to the champ include 5-year-old Le Ken, a multiple-Group I winner in Argentina trained by Ignacio Correas, IV; graded stakes-placed 5-year-old gelding multiple stakes-winning 6-year-old Western Reserve; graded stakes-placed 5-year-old gelding Noble Thought; and Brass Compass, Cheyenne’s Colonel, Doctor Mounty and Tasit.
Forge, a 5-year-old from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer William Mott, and Galton are also possible.
Casse may also have the favorite for the Lambholm South Endeavour in owner John C. Oxley’s 4-year-old filly La Coronel, who won the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes presented by Lane’s End in her most recent start on Oct. 14 at Keeneland. Also a winner of three Grade III turf stakes, La Coronel finished second in the Grade III Florida Oaks on the Tampa Bay Downs turf last year.
She breezed 4 furlongs Friday at Palm Meadows in 49.05 seconds.
Likely competition includes Dona Bruja, a 6-year-old mare who has a pair of stateside Grade III turf victories for trainer Correas; Ultra Brat, a 5-year-old mare trained by H. Graham Motion who won the Grade III Marshua’s River on Jan. 13 at Gulfstream in her most recent effort; multiple stakes-winning 4-year-old filly Dynatail, trained by Michael Dini; Lovely Loyree, a consistent stakes-winning 7-year-old for conditioner Michele Boyce; and Bonita, Josdesanimaux, Truly Together, Viva Vegas and Not Taken.
Is there a standout for the Suncoast Stakes? Analysis of that subject is perhaps best left to the serious handicappers, but it is worth noting that the last year’s runner-up, Elate, and the 2015 and 2016 winners, Include Betty and Weep No More, respectively, all developed into Grade I winners.
Probable starters include Blonde Bomber, trainer Stanley I. Gold’s sophomore who staged a strong rally to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in November; the John Servis-trained Daisy, who won the Grade III Tempted Stakes on Nov. 3 at Aqueduct; and Belles Orb, C. S. Incharge, Mihrab, So Refined and Ten Demerits.
Around the oval. Jockey Jose A. Bracho, the 20-year-old apprentice from Venezuela, continued to impress, riding three winners. He captured the second race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Jumpn’ James, owned by Winning Stables and trained by Gerald Bennett.
Bracho next won the fourth race on the turf on 14-1 shot Crown and Sugar, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Carl L. Hess, Jr., and trained by Whitney Valls. That was the first Tampa Bay Downs training victory and second overall for Valls, a former jockey.
Bracho added the fifth race on 3-year-old Florida-bred filly R Swift Taylor, helping conditioner Bennett to his second victory today. R Swift Taylor is owned by Averill Racing and CCF Racing Stable.
Trainers Eoin Harty also sent out two winners today. He grabbed the first race on the turf on I Got the Boy, a 4-year-old homebred filly owned by Dixiana Farms. The rider was Jesus Castanon. Harty added the sixth, taken off the turf, with 4-year-old gelding Whiskey Trail, another Dixiana bred-and-owned runner. Pablo Morales was aboard.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs continues Wednesday with an eight-race card beginning at 12:50 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.