by Mike Henry

Thoroughbred trainer David Hinsley has been around long enough to know you need to plan one race at a time.

But moments after Rojo Verde’s gritty half-length victory from 9-10 favorite Saint Leon in today’s third race, an allowance/$100,000 optional claiming event going five furlongs on the turf, Hinsley realized the 5-year-old gray gelding is a likely candidate for the $100,000 Turf Dash here on Jan. 10.

“We might have to go there after this one today,” Hinsley said. “We went in here because there was no place else to go, and it worked out good for him. He hasn’t been quite stakes-caliber, but he seems to be getting better as he gets older, so I’m hoping this keeps up.

“He likes competition, he likes to run head-to-head and he always tries. He is a fun horse to train because he does everything right,” Hinsley added.

Fernando De La Cruz rode Rojo Verde, who paid $15.40 to win while completing the race in 56.32 seconds. In addition to defeating multiple-stakes winner Saint Leon, Rojo Verde beat third-place finisher Mellow Fellow, a stakes winner in his previous race, and Ancil, who set the five-furlong Tampa Bay Downs turf record of 54.88 seconds in last season’s Turf Dash Stakes.

De La Cruz rated Rojo Verde off speedy fractions of 21.32 seconds for the quarter-mile and 44.49 for the half before launching his winning bid. De La Cruz was forced to steady the winner and alter course in deep stretch, but found enough of an opening to surge ahead and grab a much-deserved victory.

The Florida-bred Rojo Verde is owned by Richard Perkins of Indian Head Park, Ill., who is currently in Arizona. “He is probably watching right now and saying thank-you,” Hinsley said.

De La Cruz was hoping to get through on the rail inside the eighth pole when long shot Solidario came over slightly, denying that avenue of approach. “I had to check a little, but I had a lot of horse and there was a hole that was big enough to get through,” the jockey said. “This horse knows what he is doing and has a big heart.”

The seventh race, a mile-and-40-yard event for 2-year-old maiden fillies on the main track, brought together eight juvenile lasses trained by a veritable “Who’s Who,” including Hall of Fame members William Mott and Nicholas Zito, Todd Pletcher and Eoin Harty.

While it is impossible to predict what the future holds for any of the eight, on this day the uncoupled Pletcher entry proved best, as Little Nellie and jockey Daniel Centeno edged Allaboutthechase by a half-length.

Owned by Glencrest Farm, LLC and JSM Equine, Little Nellie paid $7.60 to win as the second betting choice.

Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Antonio Gallardo grabbed two victories on today’s card. In the sixth race on the turf, Gallardo piloted 3-year-old filly Hero Wisdom to victory for owner Laurie Moore and trainer Gerald Bennett. Gallardo added the eighth race on 3-5 shot Rhinestone Diva, a 4-year-old filly bred and owned by Marablue Farm LLC and trained by Kellyn Gorder.

Stewart is Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. Scores of offers have begun pouring in for Catalina Red since his stakes-record performance in Saturday’s $100,000, six-furlong Inaugural Stakes.

But trainer Chad Stewart says owner Anthony Lenci is looking forward to more thrills with the chestnut 2-year-old colt, who could return to action here Dec. 27 in the $100,000, seven-furlong Pasco Stakes.

“He told me he buys them to race,” said Stewart, who paid $71,000 for Catalina Red on behalf of Lenci at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s Spring 2-Year-Old Sale. “The money (being offered) is fine, but it’s not going to change his life.”

Catalina Red’s seven-and-a-quarter length victory in 1:09.32 helped Stewart garner the first Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month Award for the 2014-2015 meeting. Despite being a maiden entering the Inaugural, the Florida-bred son of first-crop sire Munnings (a multiple-Grade II winner), out of stakes-placed Lovely Dream, performed like a seasoned veteran under five-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno.

“Considering he really wasn’t being asked that much (by Centeno), it was a little bit of a surprise,” said Stewart, who is not stabled at Tampa Bay Downs but instead ships in his horses to race from his Grace Full Oaks Farm in Ocala. “He just kind of settled in behind the early speed and won at will. I thought it was a great race.”

A native of Wisner, Neb., the 50-year-old Stewart has been around horses for almost as long as he can remember. At 13, soon after his family moved to Arkansas, he found a job hot-walking and galloping horses. By the early 1980s, he was getting on between 12-15 horses a day at Park Jefferson in South Dakota, making $40-$50 a day.

“I thought, ‘I’m rolling now,’ “ he recalls.

Stewart credits the relaxed, low-stress environment at his Grace Full Oaks Farm for helping him achieve success on the racetrack. Owned and operated by Stewart and his wife, veterinarian Dr. Laurie Stewart, the 94-acre training center offers spacious paddocks and a six-furlong track (Hunter Farm Training Center) where their horses receive early lessons.

The Stewarts, who have three sons – Christian, 15; Zackary, 14; and Jacob, 11 – believe they have the best of both worlds at Grace Full Oaks. The kids are into sports in a major way, so much so that the couple named a horse they bred Tightend Touchdown (he has competed in the past two Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints, dead-heating for second in 2013).

While acknowledging training from the farm offers numerous challenges, Stewart knows how to produce results. Two seasons ago, he finished sixth overall in Oldsmar with 22 victories.

“We do all the homework and practicing at home, as much as you can,” said the native of Wisner, Neb. “The big thing is having good horses and putting them in the right spots. You have to be realistic, which is sometimes hard to do.”

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25. Simulcast wagering will not be offered Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. On that day, The Silks Poker Room will be open from 10 a.m.-1 a.m., and The Downs Golf Practice Facility will close at 4:30 p.m.

All Children’s Hospital jockey visit. A contingent of jockeys from Tampa Bay Downs will visit patients at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Monday, Dec. 15. All Children’s is a leader in pediatric care and research for children and families.

The visit will begin at 1 p.m. Media members desiring to attend should contact Tampa Bay Downs Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn or Publicity Assistant Mike Henry.