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January 17, 2020


by Mike Henry
Natural unpredictability of newly turned 3-year-olds creates potential for surprises on Skyway Festival Day card; Saturday is second annual "College Day" contest; trainer Gary Contessa to appear on "Morning Glory Club;" Pablo Morales is Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month.

If leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett achieves his goal of reaching the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 with his 3-year-old No Getting Over Me, he’s going to have company.


Gerald Bennett

Bennett, who purchased the Florida-bred gelding for $17,000 last June at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company and campaigned him under his Winning Stables banner in his first two races, recently sold No Getting Over Me to Abdullah Saeed Almaddah of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for an undisclosed price.

Bennett hopes Almaddah will realize a healthy return on the sales price in Saturday’s 20th edition of the $125,000, 7-furlong Pasco Stakes for 3-year-olds. The Pasco, to be contested as the third race, is one of three stakes on the Skyway Festival Day card.

Post time for the first of 10 races is 12:47 p.m. The two other stakes are the 36th running of the $125,000, 7-furlong Gasparilla for 3-year-old fillies, scheduled as the ninth race, and the 36th edition of the $50,000, 1 1/16-mile Wayward Lass for older fillies and mares, slated as the seventh.

There is a Super High 5 carryover pool of $7,203.43. That wager requires bettors to correctly select the first five finishers in a race in order.

Saturday is also “College Day,” with current U.S. junior, sophomore and freshmen college students, as well as U.S. high school seniors planning to enroll in college, getting a chance to compete for one of five $2,000 scholarships and spinning the prize wheel. Students of four-year colleges, two-year colleges and technical schools, as well as high school seniors, are eligible.

No Getting Over Me will face six 3-year-old colts in the Pasco, including the 2-1 morning-line favorite, Florida-bred Liam’s Lucky Charm, from the barn of trainer Ralph Nicks. No Getting Over Me showed considerable promise in his first two starts, winning a maiden special weight contest going a mile-and-40-yards by almost 10 lengths in his career debut and finishing second in the Inaugural Stakes on Dec. 7. Samy Camacho is scheduled to ride.

Bennett, who has also entered his homebred (with wife Mary) He’s Smokin Now in the Pasco, said he wrestled with the decision to sell No Getting Over Me but reached an agreement after Almaddah agreed to leave him in his barn for the immediate future.

“I thought on it for two or three weeks, but if he is going to leave him here, we still have a chance to win the Tampa Bay Derby or other races if he keeps moving forward,” Bennett said. “I spoke to (Almaddah) on the phone with an interpreter and told him I appreciate him leaving the horse here and letting us see what we can do with him, and hopefully he will bring other horses here to race.

“(No Getting Over Me) had an excellent workout last week (5 furlongs in 1:00 4/5 breezing, from the gate) and he’s doing well fitness-wise. I think he has an excellent chance of winning the race,” Bennett said.

On paper, the Pasco appears wide-open, with five of the seven entrants between 2-1 and 4-1 on the morning line. Trainer Michael Stidham, who has runners in each of the three stakes, sends out Godolphin homebred Albert Park, a stakes winner at Presque Isle Downs who finished sixth in the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille Stakes at Del Mar on Dec. 1. Pablo Morales is the jockey.

“The race at Del Mar was two turns on the turf, so our thoughts were to shorten him up and put blinkers on,” said Ben Trask, Stidham’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant. “He only got beat a few lengths, so hopefully cutting back and adding blinkers will make him a little more focused.”

As stakes winners, Liam’s Lucky Charm, Albert Park and Golden Candy will all carry 124 pounds, six more than their rivals. Another likely to receive betting support is My Man Flintstone, trained by Ken McPeek.

The general definition of “a great betting race” is one with nine or more horses that you haven’t lost yet, and the Gasparilla fits the bill, with 11 3-year-old fillies entered. The morning-line favorite at 7-2 is the McPeek-trained Swiss Skydiver, to be ridden by Alonso Quinonez. McPeek has also entered Palace Miss, to be ridden by Willie Martinez.

The runner-up here in the Sandpiper Stakes on Dec. 7, the Mark Casse-trained Two Sixty, will be ridden by Edgard Zayas.

Trainer Keith Nations is eager to see how his Florida-bred filly Campy Cash performs in her first start since Sept. 22, when she finished second in the Hollywood Wildcat Stakes at Monmouth. Originally scheduled to race in the Sandpiper, she spiked a temperature and developed a slight lung infection two days before that race, but a 4-furlong breeze last week in 47 3/5 seconds seems to shout “all systems go” for the Gasparilla.

Nations owns Campy Cash under his Nation’s Racing Stable banner in partnership with Vince Campanella. Angel Suarez will be the jockey.

“She is doing outstanding,” Nations said. “She came out of her last workout well and was on her toes this morning. She had a couple of 6-furlong breezes before her workout last weekend, so I’m hoping we have her tight enough. We’ve always liked her and think she is a very talented filly.”

Jehozacat, a 5-year-old mare owned by Lael Stables and trained by Arnaud Delacour, has been established as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Wayward Lass. Daniel Centeno will be aboard. Jehozacat finished second in her most recent outing, the Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes at Laurel on Nov. 30.

After arriving here today from Fair Grounds, the Stidham-trained 4-year-old filly Classic Fit will seek to outrun Jehozacat. Jesus Castanon is the jockey. Classic Fit mostly ran against tougher competition in her five 2019 starts, with a strong second-place finish in the Grade II Mother Goose at Belmont on June 29.

Saturday’s festivities start at 10 a.m. with the “Morning Glory Club” Show on the first floor of the Grandstand, featuring trainer Gary Contessa. Anyone attending receives Grandstand passes and free coffee and donuts.

Students wishing to participate in the “College Day” contest must complete an entry form that will be available Saturday at the Customer Service Desk and complete it by the end of that day’s racing. From those entries, 25 finalists will be drawn at random and given an opportunity to submit an essay of 300-to-500 words on “Marketing Horse Racing To a New Generation of Fans.”

Essays should emphasize initiatives aimed at attracting and keeping new followers of racing. The deadline for essays is Feb. 8, with students submitting their work to the General Office or the Publicity Office on the second floor.

Judges will rank the essays based on the feasibility of the plan; originality; an understanding of the horse racing industry; clarity and grammar; and spelling. Past winners are eligible to compete, but all essays must be original and cannot present previous themes and/or approaches.

The scholarships will be awarded through the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Educational Foundation. For details, call (813) 855-4401, extension 1368. The main objective of the contest is to explore and develop ways to attract new generations of fans to the majesty and excitement of Thoroughbred racing.

Morales is Jockey of the Month. Pablo Morales had the kind of year in 2019 most jockeys only dream about. He rode 226 winners, the 12th-highest total in North American, and his purse earnings of $4,053,906 marked a career-best.

Given that he is 31 and either at the peak of his career, or rapidly approaching it, Morales doesn’t plan to spend much time reflecting on those accomplishments.


Pablo Morales

“I hope I can do that well again, but there are a lot of factors that have to come together for you to be able to have a year like that,” said Morales, the Señor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month. “You don’t pay much attention as it’s happening, but when you look back you think ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’

“I had a lot of opportunities, and thank God I was healthy throughout the year. My confidence was up, I felt strong and I felt aware of everything. I have to credit my agent (retired jockey Paula Bacon), who is always looking out for my best interests and trying to get me on the best horses she can.

“So, I think it was a combination of a lot of stuff that allowed me to do so well.”

Morales, who is fourth in this season’s Tampa Bay Downs standings with 23 victories, won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes in February at Tampa Bay Downs on (then)-3-year-old gelding Well Defined. He concluded the Oldsmar meeting with a 5-for-5 performance on Kentucky Derby Day that included stakes triumphs on Jackson (who set the mile-and-40-yard track record) and Wildwood’s Beauty, and finished third in the standings with 69 winners.

After leaving Tampa Bay Downs, Morales rode 153 winners at Presque Isle Downs, where he has won five titles, this time finishing second by two to Antonio Gallardo. Morales has won 200 or more races three years in a row, and his career total of 1,963 victories raises hope among his supporters he can get to 2,000 during the current meeting.

“When I was just starting, it seemed like I would get there if I rode until I was 50,” he joked.

His youthful appearance makes it difficult to grasp that Morales, a product of Lima, Peru, has been riding in North America since 2005, when he was 16. Trainer Gary Contessa recalls using him as an apprentice that year in New York.

“We won a ton of races together, and even then he was so polished and level-headed,” Contessa said. “And you see (how young) he looks now; he looked like he was 10 back then. But he was cool under fire and he never moved too soon. He’s gutsy, he has great hands and he’s always had a great head on his shoulders. And he’s a fantastic person who has a good soul.”

That same year, while still an apprentice, Morales traveled to Louisiana Downs to win the Grade II, $750,000 Super Derby on The Daddy. That’s a lot of bread, but 15 years later, it’s possible the best is still to come. Part of his incentive to shine comes from his fellow riders.

“There are a lot of talented, capable riders here who are going to make it count if they’re given the opportunity, so you have to be at the top of your game to be competitive and stay in everybody’s eyes,” Morales said. “It’s about going to work every day, studying the races, going out there with the best plan you can make and reacting from experience when things change.”

Morales is grateful to his agent, retired jockey Bacon; trainer Michael Stidham, for whom he has ridden seven winners; and his wife Erin and their two children, for their love and support. Observers no longer talk of his potential; he’s producing on the track at a level few jockeys reach.

“He’s willing to work, he wants to win races and he’s the same kind of guy before or after a race,” said Ben Trask, Stidham’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant. “He always seems to know what’s going on in a race, and when things don’t go his way, he does a good job of adjusting.”

Morales rode two winners today. He was aboard 4-year-old filly Pallas Athene in the fifth race on the turf for owner Curragh Racing and trainer John P. Terranova, II. Morales added the sixth on 3-year-old filly Super Cute for owners Jim Bakke and Gerald Isbister and trainer Christophe Clement.

Tomas Mejia also rode two winners. He took the first race on 25-1 shot Kill Switch, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Jose Benitez and trained by Joseph Mazza. Mejia added the ninth race on the turf with Jackies Dream, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned and trained by Mike Dini.

Tampa Bay Downs 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.