by Mike Henry

Even though Choctaw Chuck had been working exceptionally well at the Ocala Training Center since mid-February, a majority of bettors discounted his chances in Saturday’s featured fourth race, an allowance/$62,500 optional claiming contest for older horses going five furlongs on the turf with a purse of $25,500.

But the 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding’s 25-year-old trainer, Kevin Rice, recognized more than sheer speed was needed to beat the likes of veteran turf sprinters Varsity and Hold On Smokey.

He instructed jockey Jose Angel Garcia to let the strapping Florida-bred run the first part of the race on his own, and as a result, Choctaw Chuck had enough firepower in reserve when it counted to surge past the top pair and record a neck victory from the Christophe Clement-trained Varsity in 55.48 seconds, .85 seconds off the course record. Hold On Smokey was another neck back in third.

“His second-to-last workout (45.40 seconds for four furlongs on Feb. 28) was from the gate, and that was the tightener for today. We knew he’d be ready,” said Rice, the grandson of Choctaw Chuck’s owner, Indian Prairie Ranch patriarch Clyde D. Rice. Although Choctaw Chuck has plenty of natural speed, “we weren’t going to send him. If he happened to go to the front on his own, that was fine, but we thought there was enough speed where that wouldn’t happen,” Kevin said.

“Jose did a great job of getting him to the outside, and the leaders (the 10-year-old Hold On Smokey and Rojo Verde) went fast enough for it to work out (a quarter-mile in 20.57 and the half in 43.57),” Rice added. “Choctaw Chuck ran really smooth the first part of the race and Jose made him work the whole way down the stretch, and after he got him to switch leads he still had more.”

The victory was the fourth in 13 lifetime starts for Choctaw Chuck, who won the $100,000 Tom Ridge Stakes at Presque Isle Downs at odds of 26-1 last spring – the first time Kevin Rice saddled him – and finished second last July in the Quick Call Stakes on the grass at Saratoga. This time, Choctaw Chuck paid $15.80 to win as the fourth betting choice in a field of eight.

“The other horses went too fast, and when I started asking my horse he gave me everything he had,” Garcia said. “Today when he changed leads, he took off again. He is a pretty easy horse to ride, and the way he has been going, I think he can continue to improve.”

Rice said either the Grade III Shakertown on the turf at Keeneland or the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint on the dirt at Tampa Bay Downs – both on April 4 – could be next on Choctaw Chuck’s agenda.

Also today, leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett saddled three winners for the second consecutive Saturday. Bennett won the sixth race with 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Substraight for owner Equels Marro Racing, LLC, with Antonio Gallardo aboard.

Bennett also won the eighth race – the TVG Network Purse, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event for 3-year-olds going six-and-a-half furlongs – with 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Fast Flying Rumor, who is owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables, Inc., and Midnight Rider, LLC. Daniel Centeno was the jockey. Fast Flying Rumor defeated runner-up Bandages by two-and-a-quarter lengths in an impressive 1:16.38.

Bennett added the 10th with 3-year-old filly Once More for Love. Owned by W. Kenan Rand, Jr., she was ridden by Fernando De La Cruz.

Back to Choctaw Chuck – a son of Bwana Charlie, out of the Conquistador Cielo mare, Taylor’s Choice – whose trainer, Kevin Rice, has quite a pedigree. His grandfather’s late brother, Don Rice, was an eight-time Tampa Bay Downs training champion. Clyde Rice, 75, still trains horses at Indian Prairie Ranch, with help from Kevin’s mom Gail Rice.

Kevin’s father Wayne Rice is a trainer, and Wayne’s sister Linda Rice (Kevin’s aunt) is a top New York conditioner who has trained such notable Grade I winners as Palace, City Zip and Tenski, among others. Kevin’s younger brother Adam is a trainer, and their sister Taylor Rice – at 26, the oldest of the siblings – is an up-and-coming New York-based jockey.

There are other branches of the Rice family too numerous to mention. “I had a pretty good idea I’d be doing this from a young age,” Kevin said, laughing.

The 4-year-old filly Annulment won today’s ninth race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf for older fillies and mares. Owned by G. Watts Humphrey, Jr., and trained by Victoria H. Oliver, she was ridden by Gary Boulanger.

Scott Spieth rode two winners today, scoring first in the third race on first-time starter All Star Red, a 3-year-old colt owned by Bernard G. Schaeffer and trained by William R. Connelly. The Spieth-Connelly combination also clicked in Friday’s eighth race with 4-year-old filly Little Ariel.

All Star Red paid $17.20 to win, a prelude to Spieth’s fifth-race victory aboard 3-year-old Florida-bred filly Rockin Rosie, who paid $46 to win. She is owned by her breeder, Novella Woodard, and trained by Lori A. Smock.

Daniel Centeno rode two winners. In addition to Fast Flying Rumor, he scored in the 11th and final race on the turf on 4-year-old filly Grand Cat for owner Amaty Racing Stables and trainer Sandino R. Hernandez, Jr.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. Sunday is also Kids & Family Day, with games, pony rides, inflatable slides, bounce houses and plenty of good food. There will also be an appearance by track mascot Mouse the Miniature Horse, who is available for pictures with her followers.

The track 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.

Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Ami’s Flatter held in high esteem. Second-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Ami’s Flatter, who is nominated to the U.S. Triple Crown, is the early 5-2 favorite for the 156th running of the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine in Toronto on July 5. The winter-book odds were established by Ron Gierkink and Alex Campbell of Daily Racing Form and Alex Campbell of Woodbine.

The Queen’s Plate is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. The Ontario-bred sophomore colt Ami’s Flatter, owned by Ivan Dalos and trained by Josie Carroll, finished five lengths behind Carpe Diem in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 7, showing marked improvement off his fourth-place performance in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Jan. 31 following the addition of blinkers.

The fourth early favorite for the Queen’s Plate at 5-1 is Danzig Moon, who finished fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby. Danzig Moon, also a U.S. Triple Crown nominee, is owned by John C. Oxley and trained by Mark Casse, who won the 2014 Queen’s Plate with the filly Lexie Lou.