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December 19, 2019

CHALLENGER STAKES ACHIEVES GRADE III STATUS; TWO OTHERS UPGRADED

by Mike Henry
First run in 1987, the Challenger has produced two Breeders' Cup Classic winners -- Fort Larned and Drosselmeyer; Pelican keeps showcasing star sprinters; Columbia gaining traction as a sophomore turf event.

For the first time in track history, Tampa Bay Downs will stage four graded stakes races on a single afternoon when many of the leading Thoroughbreds in training compete on the March 7 Festival Day card.

The $100,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Challenger Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward was upgraded from Listed status to a Grade III event during last week’s Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association American Graded Stakes Committee meeting in Lexington, Ky.

The Challenger joins the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes on the turf and the Grade III Florida Oaks on the turf as Festival Day 40 graded races.

Tampa Bay Downs will conduct seven graded stakes during the 2019-2020 meeting, with the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf and the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf on Festival Preview Day, February 8.   

Also upgraded by the TOBA American Graded Stakes Committee, from non-Listed Black Type to Listed status, are the $100,000, 6-furlong Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward on Feb. 15 and the $75,000, 1-mile Columbia Stakes on the turf for 3-year-olds on March 7.

The five March 7 Festival Day card stakes races are worth a combined $1-million in purse money.

“We are thrilled the American Graded Stakes Committee has recognized the ongoing quality of the Challenger, the Pelican and the Columbia,” said Peter Berube, the track’s Vice President and General Manager. “The Challenger, in particular, has produced many outstanding winners, especially in 2012 with Fort Larned, who went on that year to win the Whitney Invitational at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

“The upgrades are also a testament to our Racing Secretary, Allison De Luca, and our Stakes Coordinator, Gerry Stanislawzyk, who work diligently throughout the season to deliver top horses to Tampa Bay Downs,” Berube said. “Credit also goes to Tom McLaughlin, who supervises the efforts of our maintenance crew in keeping our dirt and turf racing surfaces in excellent condition and attractive to horsemen.”

The Challenger Stakes was first contested in 1987 as a mile-and-a-sixteenth race for 2-year-olds. It was not run from 1992-1996 before returning in 1997 as a 7-furlong race for 3-year-olds.

The race moved to the turf course in 1999 before returning to the main track in 2004 as a mile-and-a-sixteenth event for older horses.

In addition to Fort Larned, an Ian Wilkes-trainee who earned almost $4.5-million, Challenger winners include graded-stakes winners Flameaway (2019), the 2018 Grade III Sam F. Davis champ; War Story (2018); and Stanford (2017), who set the track record of 1:41.75 in his Challenger triumph.

The 2010 Belmont Stakes winner, Drosselmeyer, finished fourth in the Challenger in 2011, the same year he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

 The Pelican Stakes, previously known as the Olympia Stakes, first achieved prominence in 1995 when Florida-bred gelding Not Surprising used his second consecutive victory in the race as a springboard to a season in which he won four consecutive graded stakes races and an Eclipse Award as North American Champion Sprinter.

Not Surprising was owned locally by Robert Van Worp and trained by Jud Van Worp.

More recent Pelican winners include Florida-bred X Y Jet (2018), this year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News winner, and Action Andy (2012 and 2013), who set the stakes record of 1:09.14 in his second victory.

With its prime date on Festival Day and a chance for up-and-coming 3-year-olds to compete on the well-manicured turf course, the Columbia Stakes – formerly the Chris Thomas Turf Classic – has made a strong impression on horsemen since its return to the Oldsmar stakes calendar in 2017.

This year’s winner, the 3-year-old Chad Brown-trained colt Digital Age, won the Grade II American Turf Stakes presented by Ram Trucks in his subsequent start.