Entering Saturday’s $75,000 Florida Cup Sophomore Turf, Mike Dini was optimistic his 3-year-old colt Creaky Cricket would provide a major boost to the trainer’s nightmarish 2014-2015 meeting.
But Dini’s hopes that the promising Ballybrit Stable runner would give him his third victory of the campaign ended a few jumps out of the gate when the Florida-bred stumbled and jockey Fernando De La Cruz lost his irons, resulting in a last-place finish for the 5-1 third choice.
All Dini could do was look ahead to a sure thing: clinching the “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest and its $1,000 first prize, which became $1,500 when Dini was confirmed as the entrant with the most overall winners selected, 35.
More important to the Chicago native, who learned to read past performances from his parents, John and Mary, is the accompanying automatic entry into next year’s Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.
“I wasn’t worried about the money. I just wanted the chance to go to Las Vegas and maybe make $1-million,” Dini said. “I’m already making plane reservations, and I’ve got good help to take care of my stable next January when I’m out there. It’s a really big deal. The chance to qualify for the national tournament is the only reason I got into the contest.”
Dini competed in the national contest seven years ago as partners with one of his owners, but they didn’t cash. Two years ago, Dini’s Chicago-area friend, Jim Benes, won the first-place prize of $750,000, and the year before that, another friend from Chicago, Dave Flanzbaum, finished second.
Among 862 entrants, Dini’s final bankroll of $306.10 was highest, $13.20 ahead of the second-place finisher – fellow Tampa Bay Downs trainer and close friend Brenda McCarthy. John Dunbar finished third with $239.
The “Live It Up Challenge” ran from Jan. 31-April 4, requiring players to make one daily, $2 across-the-board wager on one horse from one of the contest’s two daily “Challenge Races.” Players faced elimination after a certain number of off-the-board finishes by their selections; when the contest concluded, the top three finishers were the only ones still in contention.
“Brenda and I discussed our picks every day, and it helped,” Dini said. “We were looking for winners, of course, but the big thing was not getting knocked out by picking too many out-of-the-money horses. It got tough later on handicapping some of the maiden races, but I did pretty well with turf races.”
His first-place finish was a soothing balm for his meet-long struggles, which have resulted in two victories and 14 seconds from 57 starters. The 54-year-old Dini, who has about 25 horses in training, plans to run later this spring and summer at Monmouth Park in New Jersey for the first time. He will also send some horses to Arlington in Illinois, where his late mother would take him on the train from the time he was 10 to watch the races.
‘I’ve got a lot of nice young horses coming around,” Dini said. “I have to remind people here sometimes that racing is a year-round sport.”
Dini has been training since 1995. Among the top horses he has saddled are Connections, who won the Grade III Kennedy Road Stakes at Woodbine as a 6-year-old gelding in 2007; Fact Not Fiction, who won the 1999 Demetri’s Boy Stakes at Hawthorne; and Wild Tale, who strung together a stakes victory at Mountaineer and back-to-back, graded stakes-placed finishes at Keeneland and Belmont as a 4-year-old horse in 2005.
Last August at Saratoga, Dini won an $85,000 allowance on the turf with Ballybrit Stable’s then-5-year-old gelding Heart Doctor.
Raymond Thielmann won the one-day “Florida Cup Day Challenge” online handicapping contest on Saturday, collecting first-place money of $1,500. Michelle Cuppy was second, earning $500. More than 300 people participated in that event.
Today’s action. The 3-year-old colt Distinctivelygreat appears to have a bright future, but his present is enough to require onlookers to don shades. The Florida-bred son of With Distinction improved to 2-for-2 with a half-length victory from fast-closing Triple Crown nominee Hashtag Bourbon in today’s third race, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event.
The time for the six furlongs was a glittering 1:10.29. A homebred racing for Peggy J. Follin, Distinctivelygreat is trained by Kathleen O’Connell and was ridden by Rosemary Homeister, Jr.
Homeister rode a wave of momentum from her victory aboard Include Betty in Saturday’s Grade III, $400,000 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, booting home two winners. In addition to Distinctivelygreat, Homeister won the eighth race on the turf in a three-horse photo finish on the 4-year-old filly Tempest’s Flash for owner Hallmarc Racing, LLC and trainer Joseph Arboritanza.
The eighth race was a one-mile, maiden special weight contest for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward. Tempest’s Flash – a Florida-bred daughter of It’s No Joke-Chelsies’ Way, by Medaglia d’Oro – had finished second in her first six career starts, including three at Tampa Bay Downs, before Arboritanza gave her an extended break after her latest runner-up effort here on Dec. 28.
“She runs good off a layoff, so I brought her home to my farm in Ocala (Arboritanza Racing, LLC) to pamper her and give her some TLC,” he said. “I brought her back about three weeks ago, and this race popped in my lap, so I figured I would sharpen her up for it and enter her. Marc Haisfield, her principal owner, has been great about letting me take my time with her.
“She loves the farm and green grass, and she lets me know she’s ready to roll again when she’s on her hind legs waving to me.”
Tempest’s Flash held off the charging Ian Wilkes-trained 3-year-old Harass by a neck, with 4-year-old Killarney Rose, trained by Christophe Clement, another neck back in third. The winner’s time was 1:35.86. “Having Rosie ride her was the cherry on top,” Arboritanza said. “She has ridden three horses for me this meeting and has two wins and a third, so those are pretty good odds.”
Trainer Monte R. Thomas saddled two winners from three starters today. He won the sixth race on the turf with 3-year-old gelding My Cowboy for owner Leila A. Vega, with leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo in the irons.
Thomas also won the ninth race with first-time starter Greatest Lisa, a 3-year-old filly bred and owned by The Big Mares LLC and ridden by Victor Lebron.
Gallardo capped a two-victory day in the 10th and final race on the turf aboard 5-year-old mare Daisy a Day for owner James Perron Racing Stable and trainer Michael W. Wright. He has 123 victories at the meeting, 21 behind Daniel Centeno’s Tampa Bay Downs single-season record with 16 days remaining.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 p.m. The track is open every day 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.