Most of the debates will cease Saturday night when industry leaders, breeders, owners, trainers and jockeys gather at Gulfstream Park for the 45th annual Eclipse Awards.
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and his entourage are expected to need a wheelbarrow to haul away the hardware. The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner is a lock for Horse of the Year and Champion 3-Year-Old Male, and his connections – owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza – are finalists in their respective categories.
Fans of Tampa Bay Downs, its Thoroughbreds and humans will have a rooting interest in at least three categories: Champion Female Sprinter, with Lady Shipman, formerly trained by Kathleen O’Connell, a finalist; Champion Female Turf Horse, in which 2015 Hillsborough Stakes winner Stephanie’s Kitten is a candidate; and Champion Owner, with perennial top Oldsmar outfit Midwest Thoroughbreds in the running.
Although the now-4-year-old Lady Shipman has not raced at Tampa Bay Downs, she was trained throughout her marvelous sophomore season by two-time leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer O’Connell. Lady Shipman’s owner-breeder, Randall Lowe, recently moved Lady Shipman to the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin, who is expected to prepare her for a trip to Dubai in March, but the conditioner known as “K.O.” will be at the ceremony with her fingers crossed, hoping the voters reward her Kentucky-bred darling for her year-long excellence.
“It’s a very exciting time, and I’m very happy for the filly because she did everything right and handled everything we threw at her with class and enthusiasm,” said O’Connell. “There aren’t too many 3-year-old fillies that run against older males and perform as well as she did, and I’m very proud of her record and of my staff for helping her get there.”
In her final race of 2015, Lady Shipman finished second by a neck to then-5-year-old gelding Mongolian Saturday in the $1-million TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland on Oct. 31, while defeating 12 other males, including 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Bobby’s Kitten.
Lady Shipman had won seven of nine starts previously, including six stakes at four different tracks, while setting track records in the six-furlong Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sprint for fillies on the Ocala Training Center all-weather track and in the five-and-a-half furlong Smart N Fancy Stakes on the turf at Saratoga.
Lady Shipman’s rivals in the Champion Female Sprinter category are Wavell Avenue, which won the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint for her only 2015 stakes victory, and La Verdad, a multiple-graded stakes winning mare which finished second in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
“Lady Shipman is an Eclipse champion, in my mind,” said O’Connell, who referred to her several times during her campaign as a “speed freak.”
“What she accomplished was due to her own brilliance and the team effort that went into keeping her at the top,” O’Connell said. “My assistant, Brian Smeak, and his wife Terri lived in the barn with her at Keeneland. Brian and Terri, and the grooms and hotwalkers, are the ones who make our operation thrive.”
Stephanie’s Kitten concluded her remarkable career with a decisive victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf that might have given voters an impetus to place her atop their ballots. Bred and owned by the husband-and-wife team of Kenneth L. and Sarah K. Ramsey, and trained by Chad Brown, the then-6-year-old mare was sold two days after the race to Katsumi Yoshida’s Northern Farm in Japan for $2.8 million.
Stephanie’s Kitten’s victory in March in the then-Grade III Hillsborough, under jockey John Velazquez, provided local fans with a glimpse of her grace and power and was similar in appearance to her Breeders’ Cup victory. She rallied from mid-pack to thrill Tampa Bay Downs fans and bettors and set the stage for her later glory.
Her rivals in the Female Turf Horse category are two other Breeders’ Cup winners: Tepin, a then-4-year-old which won the Breeders’ Cup Mile against males and two other Grade I stakes, and the Ireland-bred Found, a then-3-year-old which beat the boys in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf in her stateside debut.
Zayat Stables’ prohibitive favoritism in the Owner category against fellow finalists Midwest and the Ramseys should not obscure the accomplishments of Midwest owners Rich and Karen Papiese of Dyer, Ind. Their far-flung stable has led North America in victories each of the last six years and been runner-up in the Eclipse balloting an astounding four consecutive years.
In 2014, the Papieses’ then-5-year-old homebred gelding Work All Week, trained by Roger Brueggemann, won an Eclipse as Champion Sprinter after capturing the Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. They have a finalist again in the Male Turf Horse category in their Brueggemann-trained homebred gelding The Pizza Man, which won the Grade I Arlington Million XXXIII Stakes and the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup Stakes.
The Pizza Man is a finalist against Big Blue Kitten and Golden Horn.
Midwest Thoroughbreds has won six consecutive Tampa Bay Downs owner titles with trainer Jamie Ness at the helm, tying for the top spot last season with Amaty Racing Stables. Midwest set an Oldsmar track record with 79 victories during the 2011-2012 meeting, and posted 542 victories in 2012, a North American single-year record. The Papieses own Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla., where they keep yearlings, layups and a handful of retirees.
“It’s great to be considered (for the Eclipse), but everybody else does all the work,” said Rich Papiese, the founder of Midwest Store Fixtures, a leader in the design, manufacturing and implementation of retail merchandising displays, fixtures and environments. “We’ve been fortunate to put together a really good team, but we don’t focus too much on what we do personally.”
Midwest has become more active at sales the past couple of years, and Papiese is optimistic Ness will soon have the opportunity to train more stakes-quality horses. “Jamie is part of our family, and I think you’re going to see him racing better horses as time goes on,” Papiese said.
Even if he is not called to the podium to accept on behalf of The Pizza Man, Papiese is looking forward to a memorable evening at the ceremony. “Who doesn’t want to be part of the American Pharoah party?” he said. “He is a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”
Allen honored as Jockey of Month. Veteran jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., has written enough history at Tampa Bay Downs to stay on an even keel through the inevitable ups and downs of his profession.
But like so many Oldsmar regulars, Allen is still marveling at Fast Flying Rumor’s powerhouse victory in last week’s $100,000 Turf Dash Stakes for owners Winning Stables and Midnight Rider and trainer Gerald Bennett.
“If I had asked him, he might have broken the record,” Allen said after the 4-year-old gelding sped to a four-and-three-quarter length victory from graded-stakes winner Power Alert in 55.06 seconds, .43 seconds off the five-furlong turf course record. “I didn’t even really hit him, just kind of tapped him a little bit to keep his mind on it.”
Allen, whose contributions to Fast Flying Rumor’s success were a factor in his selection as the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month, was referring to the course record. A day later, he and everyone else discovered Fast Flying Rumor had recorded a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in the Turf Dash, believed to be the highest ever at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Beyer Speed Figures, which are published in the Daily Racing Form, are a numerical representation of a horse’s performance based on its final time and the inherent speed over the track on which the race was run. Eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense achieved a 102 BSF in winning the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby in then-track record time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth race, the same day the 5-year-old mare Cassydora posted a 105 BSF while winning the Hillsborough Stakes on the turf.
“(Fast Flying Rumor) and I really get along,” said the 51-year-old Allen, who is third in the current track standings with 18 victories. “I just tried to keep him calm in the post parade, jogged him a little and talked to him to keep him settled. He can be high-strung, but he’s getting better, and it is showing in his performances.”
Allen has been a Tampa Bay Downs fan favorite since winning the first of his four track riding titles during the 1984-1985 meeting. He set a then-track record mark three years later by riding 102 winners and turned back the clock during the 2010-2011 season by leading the local colony with 109 winners. His career victory total, at last glance, was 3,315. He won both the Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby in 1993 aboard Marco Bay.
His ongoing success is a testament to his outstanding fitness. Allen works out as many as five or six horses a morning on the weekends, and even with the abundance of quality jockeys here, it is not unusual for him to be named on six or seven on a typical racing card.
“I feel like I’m still in my 30s, and I’m going to keep riding as long as I can,” Allen said. “Youth runs in our family; my dad (trainer Ronnie Allen, Sr.) and my uncle (trainer Larry Allen) are in their 70s, and they’re still working with horses. I’m still riding the same as I did 20 years ago, my body feels good and I feel as strong as always.”
The combination of good genes, a relentless work ethic and skills developed over more than three decades in the saddle are keeping Allen at the top of the Oldsmar colony, and in demand elsewhere as well. On Saturday, he will be at Gulfstream Park in south Florida for the Sunshine Millions card to ride in a pair of $150,000 stakes. He will be aboard 7-year-old gelding Old Time Hockey for trainer Tom Proctor in the Turf Stakes and 5-year-old mare Daddy’s Boo for Larry Rivelli in the Filly and Mare Turf Stakes.
Down the stretch. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo rode two winners today, extending his streak of consecutive days with at least one winner to 13. He scored in the third race on 3-year-old Florida homebred filly She’s Lethal for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness and tallied in the eighth aboard 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Inaswagger for owners Averill Racing, Silver Oak Stable and CCF Racing Stable and trainer Gerald Bennett.
Jockey Fernando De La Cruz stayed red-hot, winning twice to give him seven victories over the last three racing days and 12 over the six most recent racing days. He won the first race on 5-year-old gelding Good Times Rambles for owner Sigma Property Investments and trainer Ray Trisler and added the fourth on 5-year-old Florida-bred horse Undeniable Temper for owner owner Anthony Barbanti and trainer Bill Sienkewicz.
Five-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno also rode two winners, both in tight photo finishes. Centeno scored in the second race on 8-year-old gelding Jersey Blue Giant for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trainer Joe Woodard, then returned to the land of milk and honey after the seventh on 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Royal Jewely for owners Michael Reynolds and Anthony J. Piarulli and trainer Gerald Bennett.
Saturday is Cap Giveaway Day at Tampa Bay Downs, with the track’s stylish new brim available with each paid admission, while supplies last. A number of the oval’s top jockeys will be seated on the first floor of the Grandstand during the card to sign autographs.
Chelsey Keiser, currently in a tie for 11th at the meeting with seven victories, will be the special guest at track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” show at 10 a.m. on Saturday on the first floor of the Grandstand. Each attendee receives free coffee and donuts, as well as Grandstand passes.
Saturday’s 10-race card begins at 12:25 p.m. The feature is the ninth race, a $23,000 conditional allowance for horses 4-years-old-and-upward, scheduled at a mile on the turf course. The morning-line favorite at 3-1 is the 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding Giant’s Passion, trained by Jose Chavez and to be ridden by Jose Ferrer.
Saturday’s fifth race has been taken off the turf, but the seventh and ninth are expected to be contested on the lawn.
Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.