by Mike Henry

Promise and potential will take a back seat to performance late Saturday afternoon when 12 3-year-olds line up to face the starter in the 35th edition of the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, the main event on Tampa Bay Downs’ Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South program.

At least one horse from the Sam F. Davis has competed in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands in 10 of the last 11 years. And although Catalina Red is the only stakes winner among the entrants, it’s too early to dismiss any as unworthy of the attempt.

“The Kentucky Derby winner is usually not precocious as a 2-year-old,” said Eoin Harty, the trainer of a pair of Sam F. Davis entrants: the Casner Racing, LP-owned colt My Johnny Be Good and Godolphin Racing, LLC’s gelding Crittenden.

“The good ones usually start developing around this time of year and really get good on (Kentucky) Derby Day,” Harty said. “Basically, just about everybody (in the Sam F. Davis field) is in the same boat, but it’s going to be a tough race. It’s never easy when you’re running for that kind of money. But you don’t necessarily want your horse peaking on Jan. 31. There is a lot of time between now and the first Saturday in May.”

The Sam F. Davis Stakes, which is the 11th race on a 12-race card that begins at 12:20 p.m., will be contested at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt track.

The Sam F. Davis Stakes is a significant prep race for the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 7. The Tampa Bay Derby is part of Churchill Downs’ Road to the Kentucky Derby points system.

Catalina Red, who is owned by Anthony A. Lenci and trained by Chad Stewart, will break from the No. 1 post and is the probable favorite based on his excellence in two Oldsmar starts.

The Florida-bred son of Munnings-Lovely Dream, by Freud, set a stakes record of 1:09.32 for six furlongs in winning the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes here on Dec. 6 and bettered that achievement three weeks later with a seven-furlong track record of 1:21.40 in winning the $100,000 Pasco Stakes.

Saturday’s powerhouse program also includes the 16th running of the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf, and the 35th renewal of the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the dirt.

Todd Pletcher, who topped all North American trainers in earnings, stakes wins and graded stakes victories in 2014 and has won seven Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Trainer, will attempt to win the Sam F. Davis for the sixth time in the last 10 years with a pair of entrants: Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ G Five and WinStar Farm, LLC’s Royal Son.

Here is the full Sam F. Davis Stakes field in post position order, with each horse’s trainer and jockey:

  1. Catalina Red, Chad Stewart, Daniel Centeno; 2. Royal Son, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez; 3. Ami’s Flatter, Josie Carroll, Luis Contreras; 4. Crittenden, Eoin Harty, Fernando De La Cruz; 5. Divining Rod, Arnaud Delacour, Luis Garcia; 6. Bandages, Chad Stewart, Ronnie Allen, Jr.; 7. Brother Bobo, Jason Servis, Gabriel Saez; 8. G Five, Todd Pletcher, Rajiv Maragh; 9. My Johnny Be Good, Eoin Harty, Antonio Gallardo; 10. Coomer, Michael Maker, Julien Leparoux; 11. Ocean Knight, Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, Jr.; 12. Bears Personality, Reade Baker, Edgar Prado.

The Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes has attracted a field of 14 fillies and mares. The collection of high-quality distaffers includes a pair of Grade I winners in Hard Not to Like, a 6-year-old mare owned by Speedway Stable, LLC and trained by Christophe Clement, and Rosalind, a 4-year-old filly owned by Michael Dubb and trained by Chad Brown.

The 2012 winner of the Endeavour Stakes, Zagora, was trained by Brown and later added the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes here to her ledger, going on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and an Eclipse as Outstanding Turf Female.

The Suncoast has drawn an overflow field of 11 sophomore fillies. Top contenders include Metro Thoroughbreds LLC’s Irish Jasper, the Gasparilla Stakes winner here from the barn of Derek Ryan, and Holywell, owned by Tracy Pinchin and trained by Jose Pinchin. 

Five-time Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno won three races on today’s card. Centeno helped 5-year-old mare Maybe Next Time break her maiden in the third race for owner David L. Posey and trainer Baltazar Galvan.

Centeno next won the sixth aboard first-time starter Thealkascraftygirl, a 3-year-old filly owned and trained by John Rigattieri. He also captured the seventh race on the turf via disqualification on 3-year-old colt Creaky Cricket for owner Ballybrit Stable, LLC and trainer Michael Dini.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. 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.

Allen earns Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month honors. It’s unusual for a rider who is third in the track standings with 20 victories to fly beneath the public’s radar. But veteran Ronnie Allen, Jr., named Hilton Garden Inn Jockey of the Month, believes the wins are soon going to come at a faster rate.

His 12.7 strike rate through today’s card is far below the 21.7-percent clip he posted last season, when he finished second to Antonio Gallardo in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 110 victories. And Allen’s second-place finish aboard Old Time Hockey in Saturday’s Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf – to Grade I winner Lochte – was a microcosm of Allen’s frustrations through the first third of the 2014-2015 meeting.

At least, it would have been if Allen became frustrated. More than 30 years as a jockey have taught him that narrow defeats are a regular occurrence, and you had better get ready for the next race if you expect to survive in the sport.

“I ain’t worried. Things will turn around,” said the 50-year-old Allen, who is engaged to Tampa Bay Downs trainer Maria Bowersock. “Everybody in this game is up and down, but no matter what you do, you can’t start changing how you ride. You can’t try too hard or it’s going to make things worse.

“You’ve just got to go with it, because pretty soon the tables will turn and you’ll be winning again.”

Throughout his career, Allen has proved the truth of that philosophy numerous times. With more than 3,200 victories and four riding titles at Tampa Bay Downs, Allen shows no signs of slowing. He remains in superb condition, crediting his muscular physique to working out four or five horses a day and riding as many mounts in the afternoons as his agent, Paula Bacon, can procure.

“I work hard in the mornings and ride hard in the afternoons, and that keeps me fit,” said Allen, who won today’s first race on 4-year-old colt Songsational, a first-time starter for owners John Fielding and Frederick Hertrich, III and trainer Tom Proctor in a swift 1:22.78 for seven furlongs.

Allen, who hoisted the first of his Oldsmar riding crowns in 1985 about a month before his 21st birthday, has no desire to hang up his tack. Not while he is still capable of competing against the best of his profession.

“I’m going to keep going until my body says ‘No,’ ” said Allen, flashing the impish grin Oldsmar’s racing set has come to know so well. “Right now, it feels like it is going to be a while before that happens. I feel strong, I’m still thinking straight and I’m making the right moves most of the time.”

Like any long-term successful jockey, Allen knows there are no substitutes for hard work, a constant quest to improve and a strong support system.

“A lot of times I’ll watch a replay of (a losing race) and wish I had done something different,” Allen said. “Then Paula or Maria will say ‘You did everything right. You just didn’t have enough horse,’ and they are usually right,” he said.

One of the flashiest jockeys in Tampa Bay Downs history as a youngster, Allen is now admired for his consistency. He might make an occasional mistake, but the effort is always there.

“I try hard on every horse and people see that, so they like to ride me,” said Allen, who with 158 mounts is second to Gallardo at the meeting. “I’m always trying for those seconds, thirds and fourths, too, because that is money in the horsemen’s pockets.”

“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 (Festival Preview Day) through April 4, which is Florida Cup Day.

Players can register online and get the complete set of rules at 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.