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February 07, 2020


by Mike Henry
South Florida invader picks up John Velazquez as jockey, been working extremely well; is Got Stormy another Tepin?; "Live It Up Challenge" handicapping contest begins Saturday; Pelican, Minaret nominations released.

While much of the hype surrounding Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes has focused on unbeaten Independence Hall and Grade II-placed Ajaaweed, Premier Star arrived on the Tampa Bay Downs backside Thursday to a minimum of fanfare.

Regardless, the 3-year-old colt, who is owned by Sonata Stable, has impressed enough people in his two starts, both 7-furlong victories at Gulfstream Park, to be established as the 3-1 second choice on the morning line – between Independence Hall at 6-5 and Ajaaweed at 4-1.

Eight 3-year-old colts and geldings will vie for the winner’s share of the purse and 10 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” qualifying points in the 40th edition of the Sam F. Davis, the 11th race on a stakes-laden 12-race Festival Preview Day card beginning at 12:12 p.m. The Sam F. Davis is contested on the main track at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth.

Included on the program are the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes, for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; and the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes, a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race for 3-year-old fillies going a mile-and-40-yards.

Premier Star, who will break from the No. 6 post in the Sam F. Davis, will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Trainer Jorge Navarro landed Velazquez after the colt’s rider in his first two races, Irad Ortiz, Jr., honored a commitment to ride Magic Star for trainer Chad Brown in Saturday’s Grade III Suwanee River Stakes at Gulfstream.

“Johnny rode him in his workout (last Saturday at Gulfstream Park West, breezing 4 furlongs in 48 seconds flat, the fastest of 15 recorded works at the distance) and couldn’t even pull him up,” Navarro said. “I think he will be on his ‘A’ game. When he broke his maiden (on Dec. 8), Tampa Bay Downs (the Sam F. Davis) was our main goal.”

Ortiz previously told Navarro he thought the longer the race, the better Premier Star would like it, and the conditioner is confident the mile-and-a-sixteenth is within his scope. “(The question) is the kind of horses he’ll be running against,” Navarro said. “It’s a graded stakes, and he has to show up and show his ability.”

Navarro, who entered today fourth in the Gulfstream Park standings with 23 victories, said it is extremely likely Premier Star would return for the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 if he wins the Sam F. Davis.

“I’ve always liked the racing surface at Tampa, and it’s just four hours away,” Navarro said. “It’s a good program and a great race for young horses.”

Got Stormy set to pick up where she left off. Four years ago, trainer Mark Casse arrived for the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes with his reigning Eclipse Award Champion Grass Female, Tepin, who had concluded her 2015 campaign with a convincing victory against males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland.

Tepin won the Lambholm South Endeavour in smashing fashion and was even better four weeks later in the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, setting the stakes and course record of 1:46.26 for the mile-and-an-eighth distance. Those Oldsmar victories were part of a winning streak that stretched to eight races and resulted in another Eclipse Champion Grass Female nod.

Saturday, Casse will send current stable star Got Stormy in quest of a Lambholm South Endeavour score against seven older fillies and mares. And while it might be a bit premature to draw comparisons to Tepin, the 5-year-old Got Stormy has compiled a mark that resulted in recognition as a 2019 Eclipse Award finalist and, arguably, the top turf female in training.

Tyler Gaffalione, a graduate of Sunlake High School in nearby Land O’ Lakes, will ride Got Stormy for Casse and owner Gary Barber. Got Stormy is 8-for-18 in her career with earnings of $1,430,578.

“I think the more she accomplishes, the more you can start thinking that way” (about drawing parallels to Tepin), Casse said. “Tepin did a lot of great things in her career, and Got Stormy has done a lot of good things so far. Her performance last year in the (Grade I) Fourstardave at Saratoga, when she beat the colts and broke the course record (for a mile) by almost a full second (1:32 flat), that’s as good as it gets.”

Got Stormy finished second by a length-and-a-half to Uni in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita, an outcome that probably cost her the Eclipse Award against her older foe. But she returned on Dec. 1 at Del Mar to win the Grade I Matriarch, an inkling that 2020 could be a special season.

“I think she’s going to come with a big performance Saturday,” Casse said. “Obviously, we’re going to try to win in the Breeders’ Cup with her.” Casse said that if all goes well, a return to California for the Grade I Shoemaker Mile on May 25 at Santa Anita could be on Got Stormy’s dance card.

Casse, who won last year’s Preakness with War of Will and the Belmont with Sir Winston, is also represented in the Lambholm South Endeavour by 5-year-old A. A. Azula’s Arch. Julien Leparoux, who was Tepin’s jockey, has that assignment.

Casse will also saddle 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding March to the Arch in the Tampa Bay Stakes and Two Sixty in the Suncoast. Gaffalione rides both horses. March to the Arch used a victory in last year’s Florida Cup Touch Vodka Turf Classic as a springboard to success in the Grade II Wise Dan Stakes at Churchill Downs, and the Live Oak Plantation homebred was triumphant on Jan. 18 in the Sunshine Millions Turf Stakes at Gulfstream.

Gary Barber’s Two Sixty, who won the mile-and-a-sixteenth Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Florida Sire My Dear Girl Stakes last September at Gulfstream, kicked off her 3-year-old campaign here on Jan. 18 with a triumph in the Gasparilla Stakes in a driving five-horse photo finish.

Around the oval. The six-horse field for today’s fifth race, a $25,000 allowance/optional claiming event for older horses going a mile-and-40 yards, included three graded stakes winners and five horses who had won stakes.

As so often happens in horse racing, especially in a quality race, pace was a key factor. Content to linger in last place up the backstretch, jockey Jesus Castanon unleashed Big Dollar Bill on the turn for home, and the 6-year-old gelding responded with a length-and-a-half victory from Navy Armed Guard, the only non-stakes winner in the field.

Grade III winner No Dozing held on well for third. Last year’s Sam F. Davis Stakes winner, Well Defined, faded to sixth after pressuring No Dozing’s early pace.

Big Dollar Bill’s time was 1:40.49. The victory was the first since October of 2018 for the son of Midnight Lute, who won the Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga that season and is Grade II-placed.

Big Dollar Bill is owned by Dennis Farkas and Brett and Cheryl Franklin and trained by Ian Wilkes.

“I saw him race at Churchill Downs, and that gave me a good idea of how he liked to run,” Castanon said. “The instructions were to leave him alone early and make one run with him, and it worked out perfect.”

Big Dollar Bill had been training at Roy Lerman’s Lambholm South facility in Reddick, Fla., for his 2020 debut. “He needed that race to get some confidence back,” said Wilkes’ assistant, Cesar Morales.

Castanon also won the fourth race on Fashion Rules, a 3-year-old filly owned by Andrew Rosen and trained by Ignacio Correas, IV.

Antonio Gallardo also rode two winners. He was aboard 4-year-old gelding Fast Fairy in the third race for owner Frederick Hertrich, III and trainer Michael Tomlinson. Gallardo added the ninth race on the turf on Candy Money, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Live Oak Plantation and trained by Michael Trombetta.  

“Live It Up Challenge” begins Saturday. The track’s annual “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest begins Saturday. Players must register by 8:30 a.m. to compete.

The contest, which runs through March 29, is a free online competition. Players are required to select one of two “Challenge Races” per day, with results determined from a mythical $2 win-place-show wager on their selection.

Lifelines will be available for purchase through March 6 for players whose selections finish out of the money on a given day, or fail to enter a selection. Up to four lifelines can be purchased upon sign-up for $5 each.

First prize is two seats to next season’s “High Rollers Handicapping Contest” at Tampa Bay Downs and second prize is one seat. For details, call (813) 855-4401, extensdion 1368, or visit on the Internet.

Pelican, Minaret Stakes nominations announced. Nominations were released earlier this week for the stakes comprising the track’s annual “Sprint Showcase Day” card on Feb. 15. The 36th running of the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward has attracted 32 nominations, while the 39th edition of the $50,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares 4-and-upward drew 29 nominations.

Both races are contested at a distance of 6 furlongs.

The nominees for the Pelican include last year’s winner, 6-year-old Killybegs Captain, whose 2019 campaign reached its apex with a victory in the Grade III Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash on Sept. 21 at Laurel Park. Killybegs Captain, who is owned by Curragh Stables and trained by John P. Terranova, II, had previously finished third in the Grade I Forego Stakes Presented by Encore Boston Harbor at Saratoga.

Other top-level nominees include last year’s Florida Cup Zaxby’s Sprint Stakes winner, 7-year-old Florida-bred gelding Extravagant Kid, along with No Dozing, Proforma, Seven Trumpets, Always Sunshine and Diamond King.

Heading the nominations for the Minaret are Lady’s Island, a 6-year-old mare who won the Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes on Dec. 14 at Gulfstream, and Jean Elizabeth, a 5-year-old mare who has won six races in a row, all stakes. Lady’s Island is owned by Matties Racing Stable and Averill Racing and trained by Georgina Baxter, while Jean Elizabeth is owned by Richard Ravin, Patricia’s Hope LLC and Larry Rivelli and trained by Rivelli.

Other top Minaret nominees include Bronx Beauty, Saguaro Row and Molto Bella.

Tampa Bay Downs races each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 3, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 12, when the track is closed. Otherwise, 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.