by Mike Henry

El Grande Rojo has won 12 races, finished in the money in 70 percent of his starts and earned $257,943. So, how illogical is it to think the 7-year-old gelding was trying to make amends to jockey Fernando De La Cruz in today’s third race?

In his first effort since stumbling at the break and unseating De La Cruz on Dec. 18, El Grande Rojo turned in possibly the top performance of the young meeting, speeding seven furlongs under De La Cruz in a track record-tying 1:21.40. The mark was established last season by 3-year-old Catalina Red in the Pasco Stakes.

El Grande Rojo paid $22.80 to win in the conditional allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event. After stalking a blazing early pace by Tiger Tank, the winner blew past on the turn and showed no letup, winning by seven lengths from Aye Skipper. Purple Egg, the 2012 Inaugural Stakes winner, finished fifth in the six-horse field as the 19-10 wagering favorite.

El Grande Rojo and Catalina Red are the only horses in the track’s 90-year history to win a seven-furlong race in under 1:22.

“We thought he was sitting on a big effort,” said Joe Woodard, who trains the son of Bowman’s Band-Theheartofdixie for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays. “He had breezed pretty good over this track, and he has a good record here (three victories and 10 in-the-money performances from 15 starts). It looked like Fernando had tons of horse at the 3/8-mile pole, and when he made his move I knew we were in pretty good shape.”

De La Cruz was surprised to see the final time when he crossed the finish and said El Grande Rojo was barely blowing hard afterward. “He galloped out good. Everything was normal,” he said. “I’ve won a few times on him at Indiana Grand, and he is a very nice horse.”

The stakes-placed runner benefited from early fractions of 21.87 seconds for the quarter-mile and 44.09 for the half, but that is kind of like saying Muhammad Ali benefited from all the guys who walked in front of his right hand.

“The last race was just bad luck,” De La Cruz said. “He stumbled and I lost my balance, but I had breezed him three-eighths (in a bullet 35 2/5 seconds on Dec. 15) and knew he was doing good.”

The result was doubly meaningful for Woodard, who was entertaining his 12-year-old daughter Caitlin and her friend Maddy from Louisville. “This was perfect, because when these girls were in kindergarten, Fernando came to their school on Kentucky Derby week and went around to all the classrooms to take pictures with the kids,” Woodard said. “It’s pretty cool for them to come here and see him win today on our horse.”

Down the stretch. Also on today’s card, leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo rode three winners, giving him 33 for the meeting and 320 for 2015, second only to reigning Eclipse Award Champion Jockey Javier Castellano in North America.

The two-time Oldsmar oval riding champion won the second race on Chilham Court, a 3-year-old gelding, by almost 15 lengths for breeder-owner Double T Racing and trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Gallardo added the sixth on 2-year-old filly Warrior’s Dance for breeders-owners Mr. and Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone and trainer Arnaud Delacour. Warrior’s Dance was claimed from the race for $16,000 by trainer Kathleen Demasi for new owner Pewter Stable.

Gallardo also won the seventh race on the turf on 9-10 favorite Lighthouse Sound, an 8-year-old gelding, for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness. Lighthouse Sound was claimed from the race for $16,000 by trainer Darien Rodriguez for new owner Anthony Borruso.

Veteran jockey Scott Spieth lit up the tote board for the second Wednesday in a row. After winning on a horse that paid $104.20 on Dec. 23, he went a step better today, urging Scarlett Del to victory in the eighth race. The 4-year-old filly, owned by her breeder, Frances Gogas, and trained by Dennis Ward, paid $130.80 to win.

The Oldsmar oval rings in the New Year on Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:28 p.m. The feature event is the 10th race, a $23,000 maiden special weight contest at a mile on the turf course. The 2-1 morning-line favorite is the Italian-bred colt Morvan Majid, a second-place finisher in his Oldsmar debut on Dec. 2.

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.

Beginning Sunday, Jan. 10 and each Sunday thereafter throughout the meeting, fans are invited to enjoy Sunday Brunch in the Skye Terrace Dining Room on the third floor of the Clubhouse. For only $28.99, patrons can savor first-class dining and enjoy a panoramic view from high above the action. Cap Giveaway Day is Saturday, Jan. 16, and fans will be able to get their new brims autographed by the track’s top jockeys during the early portion of that day’s card.

Jan. 23 is Skyway Festival Day, featuring a pair of $100,000, seven-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds: the Pasco Stakes for colts and geldings and the Gasparilla Stakes for fillies. Older fillies and mares will also have their chance to shine that day in the $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes.

February and March are the two biggest months of the Oldsmar racing season, offering major stakes races with national implications. On Feb. 13, Tampa Bay Downs will stage Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South, featuring the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-old Triple Crown candidates; the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf; the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for older horses on the turf; and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Without question, the biggest day of the 2015-2016 meeting is March 12 Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day, with a special noon post time. Offering the 36th renewal of the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf; the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf; and the $100,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses, Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day promises to be the most lucrative in track history.