Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Sole Volante is the horse to beat, but 11 others, including Chance It, are primed for a Derby effort; Hillsborough Stakes and Florida Oaks provide distaffers opportunity; Darien Rodriguez is Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month; Victor Carrasco, Jr., sends out three winners from three starters.
Chance It, who scratched from last Saturday’s Grade II Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream because of a poor post position, bids to become the first Florida-bred winner of the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in nine years Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs.
The 3-year-old colt is the only Florida-bred in the 12-horse field. Owned by Shooting Star Thoroughbreds, LLC and trained by Saffie Joseph, Jr., Chance It will break from the No. 4 post under jockey Paco Lopez in the mile-and-a-sixteenth, main track event.
Watch Me Go, the 2011 winner at odds of 43-1, was the last Florida-bred to win the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Eight Florida-breds have won the race, but six of those victories occurred from 1982-1993.
The 40th edition of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby is the 11th race on a 12-race card beginning at 12:12 p.m. Four other stakes will be run: the Grade II, $225,000 Hillsborough Stakes, for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward, at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks, for 3-year-old fillies, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; the Grade III, $100,000 Challenger Stakes, for horses 4-and-upward, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track; and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes, for 3-year-olds racing a mile on the turf.
Chance It, who is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line, is by Currency Swap out of Vagabon Diva, by Pleasantly Perfect. Chance It was bred by Ocala horsewoman Bett Usher after trainer Mary Lightner gifted her with Vagabon Diva. That transaction took place after Lightner and Usher met by chance at a restaurant.
Lightner purchased the colt privately for the Shooting Star Thoroughbreds syndicate, agreeing to Usher’s request to use the word “chance” in his name. Now 4-for-6 lifetime, including a victory against 2-1 morning-line favorite Sole Volante on Jan. 4 at Gulfstream in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, Chance It is set to continue on the road to a potential “chance of a lifetime” by earning valuable “Road to the Kentucky Derby” qualifying points in today’s race.
“I feel that if he shows up and runs his race, his ‘A’ game is as good as any horse in there,” said Joseph, who opted to send Chance It to Oldsmar because of concerns last weekend about breaking from the far outside No. 11 post and the short run to the first turn.
“He has tactical speed, which makes him easy to ride because you can put him in the right spot, and he has stamina,” Joseph said. “To have his class, stamina and speed, it’s a package that’s hard to find. He’s special, and hopefully he can show it (Saturday).”
Joseph will be track announcer Richard Grunder’s guest on Saturday’s “Morning Glory Club” show at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand.
Sole Volante, who will break from the No. 7 post under Florent Geroux, earned the favorite’s role with his eye-catching victory here on Feb. 8 in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes. Owned by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Andie Biancone and Limelight Stables Corp., and trained by Patrick Biancone, Sole Volante is 3-for-4 and ranked No. 2 on racing journalist Steve Haskin’s “Derby Dozen Presented by Shadwell Farm.”
Chance It and Sole Volante will carry 119 pounds, two more than the 10 other entrants.
The distant third morning-line choice at 8-1 is trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt Market Analysis, who will break from the No. 5 post under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Market Analysis won his only start, a 7-furlong maiden special weight race on Jan. 25 at Gulfstream.
Another high-quality Florida-bred, 7-year-old mare Starship Jubilee, has been established as a 2-1 morning-line favorite for the 22nd running of the Hillsborough, which attracted a dozen older fillies and mares. Owned by Blue Heaven Farm and trained by Kevin Attard, Starship Jubilee will break from the No. 7 post under Hall of Fame member Javier Castellano.
Starship Jubilee is 16-for-34 lifetime, with career earnings of $1,353,667. She won the Grade III Suwannee River Stakes on Feb. 8 at Gulfstream in her most recent start and won the Grade I E. P. Taylor Stakes last October at Woodbine. She will carry top weight of 123 pounds, conceding 2-to-5 pounds to her rivals.
Second choice at 4-1 in the Hillsborough is 4-year-old filly Magic Star, one of three entrants trained by four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown. Magic Star, who will be ridden by Velazquez, won the Grade III Marshua’s River Stakes on Jan. 11 at Gulfstream and finished second in the Suwannee River.
The “hometown hopeful” in the Hillsborough is 5-year-old mare Jehozacat, who won the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour on the turf here four weeks ago and previously captured the Wayward Lass Stakes on Jan. 18 on the main track. Daniel Centeno will ride Jehozacat for trainer Arnaud Delacour.
Another 12-horse field has been assembled for the 37th edition of the Florida Oaks, with Ireland-bred Walk In Marrakesh, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, breaking from the No. 6 post. She is owned by Merriebelle Stable and trained by Ignacio Correas, IV, and will be ridden by Joe Bravo, the winning connections of 2019 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Blue Prize.
Walk In Marrakesh compiled a 3-for-5 record in England and France last year before her first North American start, which resulted in a second-place finish on Sept. 15 on yielding turf in the Grade I Natalma Stakes at Woodbine. She has been working out here since December for her 3-year-old debut, breezing 4 furlongs Saturday in 50 2/5 seconds.
The second choice for the Florida Oaks at 7-2 is unbeaten (4-for-4) New York Groove, from the barn of trainer Michael Trombetta. She is a two-time stakes winner, with all of her races on all-weather synthetic surfaces. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo has the riding assignment.
Also well-regarded at 5-1 is Micheline, who won the Sorority Stakes last September at Monmouth and captured an allowance/optional claiming event on the turf here on Dec. 20 with a strong rally. Paco Lopez will ride for trainer Michael Stidham.
The Challenger Stakes, which is a graded event for the first time in its 29-year history, has drawn a field of eight headed by 2-1 morning-line favorite King for a Day. The 4-year-old colt is trained by Pletcher and will be ridden by Velazquez. King for a Day has a 3-for-6 record, including back-to-back stakes victories last year in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico and the TVG.com Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth.
Other likely contenders include Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes winner Admiralty Pier, trained by Barbara Minshall and ridden by Samy Camacho, and Florida-bred Noble Drama, a three-time stakes winner trained by David Fawkes and ridden by Castellano.
The 14th running of the Columbia Stakes has attracted a field of 10 3-year-old colts and geldings. The 3-1 morning-line favorite is Chapalu, last year’s Grade III Grey Stakes winner on the turf at Woodbine who will attempt to bounce back from a seventh-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes.
Castellano will ride Chapalu for trainer Delacour.
The 7-2 second choice in the wide-open field is Mr. Kringle, from the barn of John P. Terranova, II, with Pablo Morales slated to ride. Third choice at 5-1 is the gelding Me and Mr. C, trained by Ned Allard and ridden by Carol Cedeno.
Rodriguez is Trainer of the Month. Before beginning his training career in 2010, Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month Darien Rodriguez worked as an exercise rider for successful trainers Leigh Delacour, Miguel Feliciano and Mike Zwiesler.
Riding five or six horses a morning is a routine the 40-year-old conditioner still follows, whether it’s a gallop or a timed workout. It’s a hands-on approach that allows him to judge whether a horse is as fit and happy as he wants it to be for its next race.
That’s not the only reason Rodriguez wins at a 26-plus-percent clip, but it provides an insight into his methods. Preferring to keep his numbers relatively low, he has only started more than 100 horses in a year one time: last year, when he saddled 42 winners from 133 starters, tying for eighth in the Oldsmar standings with 14 victories and finishing seventh at Presque Isle Downs with 26 winners.
Rodriguez has a direct answer for keeping up those percentages: “Just put the horses in the right place.” So, why doesn’t every trainer do the same?
“Maybe I have the privilege to do it,” he said. “When the owners let you run them where they belong, it’s a lot easier.”
Given that Rodriguez doesn’t have a Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby horse, it’s essential that he make solid appraisals of his entire stable. And when it comes to playing the claiming game, he stays realistic.
If Rodriguez enters a horse for a $16,000 price tag because he thinks that condition offers the best shot at winning a race, he’s prepared to have that horse wake up the next morning in a new barn.
“I put them where they belong, in my opinion, and if somebody likes them enough to claim them, I’ll find another one to claim,” Rodriguez said. “I go through my phone at night looking at the form (past performances) and watching replays to come up with horses to claim. You have to keep restocking your stable if you’re a claiming trainer, because it can get low very fast.”
Rodriguez’s keen eye and his willingness to put in the work have led to a level of consistency few trainers achieve. He is tied for fifth place in this season’s standings with 12 victories from 46 starters, along with 14 seconds.
The 40-year-old Santa Clara, Cuba product appreciates his owners trusting his judgment. “Some owners want to expect more out of their horses, and some are very realistic,” he said. “So many things have to come into place to win a race, from the groundwork to the jockey to having a good trip. There is a lot that can go wrong and very little that can go right sometimes, but everything has been very smooth lately.”
Rodriguez plans to enter two horses in the March 29 Florida Cup at Tampa Bay Downs, the 5-year-old mare Crown and Sugar and 5-year-old gelding My Boy Lenny. Crown and Sugar, which he owns under his Sabal Racing Stable banner, in partnership with Aristides Sideris, will aim for a repeat victory in the $110,000 Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf. My Boy Lenny, which he claimed for $32,000 from a Feb. 22 win, is being pointed toward the $110,000 DRF Bets Sprint.
Rodriguez won the 2017 Florida Cup Sprint with Tiger Blood, whose 1:08.92 clocking for the 6 furlongs was only .25 seconds off the stakes and track record.
Rodriguez and his wife Dainelys have a son, Tihago, who turns 3 later this month. “I’m happy where I’m at right now,” Rodriguez said. “If I stay a claiming guy until I decide to do something else, so be it, and if somebody wants to send me better horses, I’ll take them too. I think good horses will come to you, whether you’re looking for them or not.”
He’s having too much fun to stop looking.
Carrasco enjoys 3-for-3 day. Trainer Victor Carrasco, Jr., won with all three starters today. He captured the first race with Uyeda, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Black Cloud Racing Stable (Mark Esposito) and ridden by Jesus Castanon. Carrasco added the third race with 3-year-old gelding Autograph, owned by Angel Ubarri and ridden by Angel Suarez.
In the sixth race on the turf, jockey Daniel Centeno guided Carrasco’s 4-year-old colt Bunster to a gate-to-wire victory going a mile-and-a-sixteenth. Ubarri also owned Bunster, who was claimed from the race for $16,000 by trainer Michael B. Campbell for Mike Campbell Racing Stable.
Around the oval. Saturday’s second race, the $40,000 Manatee Overnight Handicap for older fillies and mares racing 7 furlongs, features the return to competition of 4-year-old filly Point of Honor, who will make her first start since finishing second in the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga last August. Castellano will ride Point of Honor for trainer George Weaver.
Point of Honor kicked off her 3-year-old season in February of 2019 with a powerful victory here in the Suncoast Stakes, and won the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes in May at Pimlico. She also finished second last year in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.
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, 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.