by Mike Henry

For Tampa Bay Downs trainer William Downing, one look at 5-year-old gelding Lochte was all it took.

Downing has known Lochte’s trainer, south Florida-based Marcus Vitali, since they were boys and attended the races together at old Narragansett Park in Rhode Island in the 1970s. And when Lochte arrived at Downing’s barn Thursday for today’s Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, Downing knew he was something special.

“He’s a professional racehorse. Class, just class,” Downing said after Lochte’s head victory from Old Time Hockey in the mile-and-a-sixteenth turf event, with betting favorite Sky Flight a neck back in third. “You can tell a good horse when you’re around one, and this horse is a real professional.

“Look at the way he’s fighting there,” Downing added, watching the replay of the gut-twisting finish on the infield big screen. “He was determined. You can see he’s got a lot of heart.”

Knocked down to 4-1 odds by bettors who remembered his victory in last year’s Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap at odds of 39-1 and subsequent second in the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, Lochte paid $10.20 to win while completing the distance in 1:41.63 on a turf course labeled “good” under winning jockey Paco Lopez. Rose Brier finished fourth in the 12-horse field.

Lochte’s thrilling victory was the highlight of a spectacular afternoon of Thoroughbred racing, featuring three stakes worth a combined $350,000 in purse money. No bettors hit the Pick-5 or the Super High-5, creating massive carryover pools into Sunday of $59,814.45 for the Pick-5 and $10,102.37 for the Super High-5.

In the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old and upward at six furlongs on the main track, 7-year-old Star Harbour and jockey Geovany Garcia led from start to finish but barely held on to defeat a charging Helooksthepart and Rosemary Homeister, Jr., by a nose in 1:10.78 for the distance. Star Harbour paid $23.60 to win. Risk Factor was two-and-a-half lengths back in third, followed by Good Lord.

Star Harbour is owned by the family partnership of Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trained by Joe Woodard. The Hayses were the sixth-leading owners in North America last year with 118 victories.

And in the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for older fillies and mares at five furlongs on the turf, 4-year-old filly Double Secret and jockey Augusto A. Marin pulled off the biggest shocker of the day, going gate-to-wire to defeat fellow long shot You Bought Her by three-and-three-quarter lengths in 56.64 seconds.

Double Secret, who paid $63.40 to win, is a Florida-bred owned and trained by Adolfo J. Exposito, who manages an eight-horse stable.

Back to Lochte, a son of top sire Medaglia d’Oro out of the Lemon Drop Kid mare Lemon Kiss. Lochte improved to 5-for-21 lifetime, and first-place money of $90,000 boosted his career earnings to $548,572.

Lochte is owned by Carolyn Vogel’s Crossed Sabres Farm. “I had never been on the horse before, but I knew he would be able to go along with whatever pace developed,” victorious jockey Lopez said.

“They told me he was doing very well and to ride him the way I thought best. We got a good setup behind the leaders and they were really going along, so I was able to wait until the final turn. We found a space and he really turned it on in the stretch.”

Glen Hill Farm’s reliable 6-year-old Old Time Hockey, trained by Tom Proctor, closed willingly under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., for the place. “He ran a really good race,” Allen said. “He relaxed for me the way he does, but we got in a little tight going into the final turn and I had to wait. When we got to the outside in the stretch, I thought we might win it.”

The winner “is a real nice horse, and I was very confident in him today,” said Vitali by phone from Gulfstream Park, where his 3-year-old Bluegrass Singer (also owned by Crossed Sabres) finished third in the Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes.

“We were in a little traffic and I was hoping Paco would hang on until something opened up,” Vitali said. “The horse did the rest. He is just coming back into form (after an up-and-down summer), and we’re real happy with him.”   

In the Pelican, Star Harbour – a Florida-bred son of Indian Charlie bred by Peter Vegso and Anne Vegso – captured his second consecutive stakes victory, having won the Hollywood Gaming Mahoning Sprint Stakes in Ohio in November. He improved to 10-for-30 lifetime and first-place money of $60,000 boosted his earnings to $525,824.

“This is a very big deal for all of us,” said the Kentucky-based Woodard’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant, Charlotte Clemons. “Geovany and I work together every morning, and our strategy was just getting to know the horse. We know what we have to do and I think we work together excellently as a team.

“I knew that other horse was flying, but I was pretty sure we had it.”

So was Garcia, who has teamed up with Woodard for six victories at the current meeting. “This horse has a ton of class, but in the mornings he really doesn’t show it,” Garcia said. “Put him in a race and he is a different horse. He got away super and relaxed like he does when he gets clear.

“I may be in trouble at home,” joked Garcia, whose wife, Kat Zwiesler, is the assistant trainer for James DiVito, the co-owner and conditioner of runner-up Helooksthepart. “(Kat) is as competitive as I am. My horse gave me some more run late, and it was just enough.”

Homeister thought she might have gotten up at the wire. “I finally got a clear lane in the upper stretch, and he was really rolling at the end,” she said.

Exposito purchased Lighting City Stakes winner Double Secret for a bargain price of $5,000 as a yearling. All of her races, and her three victories, came as a 3-year-old; she broke her maiden here last April, and she won a pair of allowance races on the synthetic surface at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.

Exposito put her on the turf for the first time here Dec. 26, and the daughter of Double Honor-Smart Secretary finished third in a five-furlong dash after setting the pace with blazing fractions of 20.86 and 44.61 seconds.

“That race was bettered than it looked (on paper),” said Exposito, a resident of Wildwood, Fla. “She was under pressure that time, and she was able to get away by herself today. There were some tough horses in here, but I wasn’t too surprised. She runs good on Poly (synthetic), and usually when they’re good on Poly, they’re good on turf.”

Marin was delighted to have things his own way. “I was pretty sure after her last race she would go well today,” he said. “She was still moving really well in the stretch and I was pretty sure we would win it.”

With 37-1 shot You Bought Her and jockey Brian Pedroza running second, the 8-3 exacta paid a whopping $1,150.40. The 8-3-12 trifecta combination paid $7,596.60 and the $1 superfecta combination of 8-3-12-6 paid $22,262.70.

Stakes-quality performances went on display in the second race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, an allowance/$32,000 optional claiming race at six-and-a-half furlongs for fillies and mares 4-years-old and upward.

The well-bred 4-year-old Nesso was a dominant winner, cruising past the wire under jockey Daniel Centeno by five-and-three-quarter lengths from runner-up Cindys Casino. Nesso, who is now 3-for-11 lifetime, won the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes last year as a 3-year-old. The Florida-bred daughter of Roman Ruler-Devotedness, by Anet, is owned by Amaty Racing Stables and trained by Sandino Hernandez, Jr.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs 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.

“Live It Up Challenge.” Registration is underway for the second annual, free online “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, with players vying for the grand prize of $1,000 in cash and a seat at the 2016 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship.

Also at stake are additional prizes of $1,000 for second place, $500 for third and $500 for most winners selected throughout the contest, which runs from Saturday, Jan. 31 – which is Festival Preview Day at Tampa Bay Downs – through Saturday, April 4, which is Florida Cup Day.

Players can register online and get the complete set of rules at www.liveitupchallenge.com on the Internet. All wagers are mythical. Players must make a selection every day; those skipping a day incur a strike, with three strikes ending their participation. Players also incur a strike when their selection in one of that day’s “Challenge Races” does not finish first, second or third.

All players begin the competition with two life lines. A new feature will give players the opportunity to purchase two additional life lines before the contest and extra life lines at two specified times during the competition. The deadline to register is 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, the first day of the contest.