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January 12, 2020


by Mike Henry
High Rollers champion glad he stepped up to the plate, wins first prize of $18,000; Luis Carvajal, Jr., Ignacio Correas, IV have Eclipse Award finalists; keep an eye on Todd Pletcher-trained maiden winner Farmington Road.

Mike Buccina had a few good reasons for not entering Saturday’s High Rollers Handicapping Contest at Tampa Bay Downs.

“I was hedging, because I’ve been going so bad,” the former Thoroughbred owner said. “And I’m not a win-place-show bettor. I’m a gimmick player – I can’t remember the last time I bet a horse to win, place or show. I’m mostly a superfecta player, so (the contest format) was out of my game a little bit.”


Mike Buccina

Throw in the fact that Buccina went 0-for-5 in last year’s contest, which marked his first venture into the world of big-money handicapping contests, and the prospect of paying the $1,000 entry fee gave cause for concern.

But after some arm-twisting from contest organizers and a look at Saturday’s 10-race card, the 64-year-old resident of nearby Tarpon Springs decided to opt for his share of fun and excitement.

His decision to throw caution to the wind paid off handsomely when Buccina topped 91 other entrants, building his $500 bankroll to $1,315 by day’s end to collect the first-place prize of $18,000.

“I’m here too often to get nervous, but it was exciting, especially when I shot to the lead (with a $100 win bet in the eighth race on the turf on Hope Again, who paid $10.60),” said Buccina. “I didn’t think I’d shoot right to the lead like that, but when the favorite won the ninth race, I knew I’d be hard to catch.”

Buccina, who was the leading owner at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2004-2005 meeting, rendered that scenario impossible with a $50 win-place wager in the 10th and final race on the turf on the winner, Beantown Baby.

Finishing second, with a final bankroll of $1,135, was John Kaiser, who earned $7,200. William Recio finished with $1,000 in his bankroll, earning $5,400. Mikael Christen ($962) finished fourth, winning $3,600, and Gregory Lewis ($886) took the fifth-place prize of $1,800.

In addition to awarding cash prizes to the top-five finishers, the contest offered two seats to either of the next two National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championships in Las Vegas (this year’s event is Feb. 7-9 at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino), which will be used by Kaiser and Recio.

Buccina, who owns Revenue Systems, Inc., an insurance collection firm, won 110 races as an owner from 2000-2009, most at Tampa Bay Downs. His top horses included Malo, Dry Ice and Spirit of Flag, a mare who won the 1999 Ohio Valley Handicap at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort (with current Tampa Bay Downs agent Paula Bacon in the saddle).

Like most of the entrants, Buccina enjoyed the competitive spirit of the contest. He stuck with his picks from his previous night’s handicapping, with a strong feeling about Hope Again, one of only three in the 10-horse field with more than one lifetime victory.

“That was a very tough race, and the Jonathan Thomas and Arnaud Delacour-trained horses both looked good,” Buccina said. “But I liked the fact (Hope Again) had won five times, and Samy Camacho rode him perfect. He laid close and at the top of the lane, he exploded.”

Like a golfer who makes a hole-in-one, Buccina was prepared for what lay ahead at the post-contest gathering in Legends Bar: drinks were on him.

“They were waiting for me,” he said, smiling. “Some even left their tab. That’s OK – I had no problem with that.”

Eclipse Awards dinner upcoming. Tampa Bay Downs trainers Luis Carvajal, Jr., and Ignacio Correas IV aren’t sweating the results of the 2019 Eclipse Awards, even though each has a finalist in the competition.

For Carvajal, it’s enough that his (now)-7-year-old Florida-bred, Imperial Hint, is one of three finalists in the Male Sprinter category for the third consecutive year. Forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup Sprint because of a foot blister, Imperial Hint is back in training at Tampa Bay Downs for the $1.5-million Riyadh Dirt Sprint on Feb. 29 in Saudi Arabia.

That event is part of a program that includes the $20-million Saudi Cup, the richest horse race in history.

“He worked great (Friday, breezing 3 furlongs in 36 seconds), and if he keeps going the same way that’s what we’re going to do,” said Carvajal, who would also like to make the Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News on March 28, a race in which Imperial Hint finished third last year.

“He feels great, he looks great and his coat is shining and dappled. He hasn’t lost the fire at all,” Carvajal said. “This is the way I want to have him to the day of (the Riyadh Dirt Sprint).”

Although Imperial Hint boasts a victory last year against fellow Male Sprinter finalist Mitole in last summer’s Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga, the injury that forced him to miss the Breeders’ Cup Sprint scuttled his chances.

Mitole, who won the Sprint at Santa Anita to complete a 6-for-7 season, is expected to easily beat Imperial Hint and fellow finalist World of Trouble in the Eclipse Award voting by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.

“We beat (Mitole) on the racetrack, but he had four Grade I wins and we couldn’t prove our win at Saratoga was legit at the Breeders’ Cup,” Carvajal said. “But to be a finalist three years in a row is saying a lot.”

The voting should be closer in the Older Dirt Female category, with Correas represented by last year’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, Blue Prize, who trained at Tampa Bay Downs last winter. The (now)-7-year-old mare handed Eclipse favorite Midnight Bisou her only defeat of the year in that race and also won the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland for the second year in a row.

The Distaff was the (then)-4-year-old Midnight Bisou’s only defeat in eight races, and her seven consecutive graded-stakes victories are expected to sway enough voters in her favor against Blue Prize and fellow finalist Elate.

“It’s not in my power to do anything about (the voting),” said Correas, who took great satisfaction in having Blue Prize, a 3-year-old champion filly in Argentina, ready for a supreme effort on Nov. 2 on international racing’s biggest stage.

“I’m thankful for the ride we had with her. You don’t get a horse of her caliber every day. Everything comes to an end, but the fact the best race of her career was her last one, there’s not a better statement.”

Blue Prize was sold three days after the Distaff by owner Merriebelle Stable for $5-million at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Mixed Sale to Larry Best’s OXO Equine. She will be bred to Into Mischief, last year’s leading sire.

For the record, the Bill Mott-trained Elate ran once at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing second as a 3-year-old to Tapa Tapa Tapa in the 2017 Suncoast Stakes.

Tampa Bay Downs fans will also be keeping a close eye on the voting in the Older Dirt Male and Male Turf Horse categories.

The finalists in the Older Dirt Male category include Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, who raced three times at the Oldsmar oval. He won an allowance/optional claiming event here as a 2-year-old and finished third in the 2018 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and fourth in the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

World of Trouble, in addition to being a finalist as a Male Sprinter, is a finalist in the Male Turf Horse category, almost certain to be won by unbeaten Bricks and Mortar, also the favorite for Horse of the Year.

Regardless, the Florida-bred World of Trouble was a Tampa Bay Downs sensation. As a 3-year-old in 2018, he won the Pasco Stakes by 13 ¾ lengths and finished third in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Last year, he won the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Marion County Florida Sire Stakes by 13 ¾ lengths (yeah, again), achieving a track-record 109 Beyer Speed Figure.

World of Trouble went on to win Grade I stakes on both dirt and turf.

Around the oval. Trainer Todd Pletcher might be at it again. The two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, who sent 2017 Run for the Roses winner Always Dreaming to Tampa Bay Downs to break his maiden that January, sent out Farmington Road to win for the first time in three career starts in today’s second race. The margin was 1 ¾ lengths from Noble Empire, another Pletcher trainee.

Owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Chrysalis Stables and Robert V. LaPenta, Farmington Road raced the mile-and-40-yard distance in 1:39.88. Daniel Centeno was the jockey.

The Florida-bred 5-year-old mare Foxy Mischief won the fifth race, the 6-furlong Minaret Prep, by 2 ¼ lengths from Suzie’ssteppinout in 1:10.36. Antonio Gallardo rode Foxy Mischief for owner Vince Campanella and trainer Darien Rodriguez, who claimed the Florida-bred from her previous start here on Dec. 29.

The $50,000 Minaret Stakes will be contested Feb. 15.

Rodriguez and Gallardo also teamed to win the ninth and final race with Flugel Binder, a 3-year-old filly owned by Mark Taylor.

In today’s fourth race, 8-year-old Johnny U held on for a neck victory from Far From Awesome, rewarding 24-year-old jockey Alexander Bendezu Rojas with his first North American victory from 12 mounts. Bendezu Rojas rode more than 100 winners in Peru.

Johnny U, who was owned by K12, LLC and trained by Jose H. Delgado, was claimed from the race for $5,000 by trainer Gary L. Johnson for new owner Irish Charm Thoroughbreds.

Pablo Morales rode two winners today. He captured the first race on Elzabe’s On Board, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Averill Racing and ATM Racing and trained by Georgina Baxter. Elzabe’s On Board was claimed from the race for $8,000 by trainer Maria Bowersock for new owner Janis K. Maitlen.

Morales added the sixth race on the turf on Embossed, a 3-year-old filly bred and owned by Godolphin and trained by Michael Stidham.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs continues Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:27 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.