by Mike Henry

South Florida invaders Varsity and Master Blender can expect a strong challenge from the “home team” in a five-furlong turf sprint that highlights an 11-race card Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs.

The $25,500 allowance/optional claiming event is the fourth race on a program that includes a six-and-a-half furlong race for promising 3-year-old colts on the main track (Race 8) and a mile-and-an-eighth allowance/optional claiming event on the turf for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward (Race 9). Post time for the first race is 12:40 p.m.

Tampa Bay Downs will also simulcast the full card from Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, featuring the 2015 debuts of Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Colt American Pharoah in the Grade II, $750,000 Rebel Stakes and Eclipse Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Untapable, winner of last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks and Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, in the Grade II, $300,000 Azeri Stakes.

Six opponents will challenge Varsity and Master Blender in the fourth race, including the durable 10-year-old Florida-bred Hold On Smokey, who is owned and trained by Joyce Kielty and will be ridden by Augusto A. Marin.

Hold On Smokey has won 19 of 61 starts, with career earnings of $416,707. In his previous start on Jan. 10, he finished a highly respectable fourth in a 12-horse field in the $100,000 Turf Dash in a race in which the winner, Bold Thunder, set a Tampa Bay Downs five-furlong turf course record of 54.63 seconds.

Hold On Smokey will break from the No. 7 post, directly inside of 8-year-old gelding Varsity, a homebred racing for owners Mr. and Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone of Genuine Risk fame and trained by Christophe Clement. Varsity will be ridden by Victor Lebron.

Varsity, who did not race until his 4-year-old season, last found the winner’s circle in February of 2013 in the Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint Stakes, but back-to-back bullet workouts at the Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Fla., seem to indicate he is in excellent form.

Master Blender, a 5-year-old Florida-bred owned by Anne D. Scott and trained by Kirk Ziadie, will be making his first career turf start in the contest. He won three consecutive dirt sprints in south Florida last year before finishing fourth in the Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream on Dec. 27. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo has the riding assignment.

In the eighth race, the World Thoroughbreds Racing, Inc., homebred Bandages heads a field of seven sophomores seeking to find their place in the racing world. The 2-1 morning-line favorite is trained by Chad Stewart and will be ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr.

His connections thought enough of Bandages to enter him in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Jan. 31, and while he was no match for the top flight that day, this spot should provide a better indication of his potential.

An overflow field of 12 fillies and mares is entered in the ninth race. The morning-line favorite at 3-1 is Cherrywood Racing Stables, II, Terry Biondo and Michael Bojarski’s 5-year-old mare Jennifer J., who is trained by Michele Boyce and will be ridden by Daniel Centeno.

Today’s action. On today’s card, four-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., made a successful return to action by winning the 10th race on the turf on 4-year-old gelding Gallant Pursuit for breeder-owner Ripplewood Farm and trainer Tim Richardson.

Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes winner Lochte made a successful return to Tampa Bay Downs, capturing the Tampa Turf Classic Prep, run as the third race, by four lengths from Mellow Fellow in 1:43.22 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass.

The victorious 5-year-old gelding won the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap in 2014.

Tampa Bay Downs trainer William Downing saddled Lochte – a Kentucky-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro, out of the Lemon Drop Kid mare, Lemon Kiss – for his boyhood friend, south Florida-based conditioner Marcus J. Vitali. Lochte is owned by Carolyn Vogel’s Crossed Sabres Farm and was ridden by Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Antonio Gallardo.

Downing returned to the winner’s circle with one of his own runners after the sixth race: 6-year-old gelding Chosen Heir, who won for owner Chris Reynolds. Harry Vega rode the Florida-bred.

The 3-year-old filly Red River Heidi broke her maiden in the fourth race in impressive fashion, winning by 18 ½ lengths in her first attempt at two turns. Her time for the mile-and-40-yards was 1:41.98.

The Ontario-bred daughter of Afleet Alex, out of the Street Cry mare Red River Jane, is owned by Hawk Enterprises, Inc., and trained by Jason DaCosta. Fernando De La Cruz rode the winner.

Nine-year-old gelding Just Jebicah isn’t as fast as when he won the H.B.P.A. Sprint Stakes at Canterbury in 2011, but he keeps paying the bills. He won the ninth race today at odds of 13-1 for owner-trainer Lonnie Arterburn, whose daughter, Brittany Arterburn, was aboard for the Florida-bred’s second victory at the meeting. Just Jebicah is 19-for-82 lifetime.

Gallardo rode two winners today. In addition to Lochte, he was aboard victorious 6-year-old gelding Space Race in the seventh race for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and trainer Jamie Ness.

Rodriguez is Jockey of the Month. Even the most devoted of Tampa Bay Downs followers might be surprised to discover that Erick Rodriguez is in third place among Oldsmar jockeys in win percentage, his 16.1 strike rate trailing only Antonio Gallardo and Daniel Centeno.

In part, that statistic can be attributed to the joint decision by Rodriguez and his agent Kevin Witte to focus their business primarily on higher-quality stock. But it’s also proof that the 35-year-old Rodriguez is one of the better-kept secrets among the Oldsmar riding colony.

Despite his lack of opportunities, Rodriguez has earned the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month Award, with eight victories since Feb. 11 (Gallardo, who has won 24 races over the last 10 racing days, received the honor earlier in the meeting).

“I think Erick is very underrated,” said veteran trainer Anthony Pecoraro, who used Rodriguez aboard his 4-year-old colt I’m the Lucky One in a one-mile turf allowance victory last week. “I had always tried to use him since he had his bug (apprentice allowance), but we’ve always gone in different directions.

“We’ve gotten together this year, and it seems to be working. He fits my horses well and is able to get in a comfortable mode with them.”

Like many trainers in the know, Pecoraro credits Rodriguez as an excellent turf rider, and the evidence supports that contention. In Saturday’s Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes, Rodriguez piloted 60-1 shot Speed Seeker to a third-place finish behind Stephanie’s Kitten and Ball Dancing for trainer Joan Scott.

Last season, Rodriguez won both the Hillsborough and Grade III Endeavour Stakes here for trainer H. Graham Motion on then-5-year-old mare Cloud Scapes.

“He rides the grass extremely comfortably,” Pecoraro said. “When other jockeys are pulling the trigger too soon, he just sits and waits until it’s the right time.”

It’s interesting to note, though, that Rodriguez’s win percentage on turf at the current meeting (16.7, 7-for-42) is only slightly above his dirt percentage (15.7, 8-for-51).

“I do ride the turf differently, because you need a lot of patience and you have to always be aware of what’s going on around you and watch a lot of little things,” Rodriguez said. “Really, I think I am the same rider on both surfaces, but a lot of the people I ride for have more turf horses (than the typical barn).”

Rodriguez rides during the summer on the Tapeta synthetic surface at Presque Isle Downs, and says he rides that track similar to how he rides on turf. He finished fourth last year at the Pennsylvania track with 78 victories and led that colony with a 25.3-percent strike rate.

Formerly a year-round fixture on the Maryland circuit, Rodriguez has won four meeting titles: two at Pimlico and one each at Laurel and Timonium. He has three children: sons Cristian, 15, and Adrian, 4, and daughter Ericka, 9.

Rodriguez enjoys fishing or hanging out with some of his friends in the jockey colony on off days. Occasionally, he will drive to Ocala to visit his girlfriend Shannon Welter, who works on a Thoroughbred farm and competes in team roping.

Both Rodriguez and his agent expect business to continue to pick up throughout the remainder of the 2014-2015 meeting. “He is starting to ride for people he has never ridden for before,” Witte said. “He is a very outgoing young man, and we’re getting new business every day. I think what he is doing this year will give us a lot to build on.”

 “There are a lot of riders here in the same boat as I am,” said Rodriguez, who has ridden more than 1,300 career winners. “This is a really tough meet, and a lot of trainers came here with their own riders.

“But it looks like things are going in the right direction,” he said. “My approach is the same – I watch replays, handicap my races, try my best and try to ride for the right people. When you ride better horses and make the right decisions in a race, you look good.”

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 5 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and Three Card Poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.