BARGAIN BUYS VALUEABLE CHARMER, PEPPI THE HUNTER MAY BE STAKES-BOUND

by Mike Henry

A pair of bargain 3-year-olds passed their final auditions today at Tampa Bay Downs for likely stakes appearances on the Jan. 23 Skyway Festival Day card.

Valueable Charmer, a Florida-bred filly owned by Mary Bennett’s Winning Stables and Ray Rech, coasted to a three-and-a-quarter length victory from Special Talent in the second race, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event. Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode the winner, which posted an excellent six-furlong time of 1:11.03 while winning for the third time in five career starts.

Trainer Gerald Bennett picked Valueable Charmer out at the 2015 June Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s Open Sale of Horses of Racing Age, paying $13,000 of the partnership’s money. Today’s winner’s purse raised her career earnings above $40,000. Bennett is pointing her toward the $100,000, seven-furlong Gasparilla Stakes on the 23rd.

“Ronnie said he had her wrapped up. She was just out for a stroll,” Bennett said. “She’s been training well ever since we had her. She led all the way today, but she broke her maiden (on Sept. 7 at ThistleDown) coming off the pace, so I think she’ll like the extra distance.”

Owner-trainer Joseph Minieri paid only $15,000 for his 3-year-old gelding Peppi the Hunter at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and he seems to be maturing into a horse with a bright future. Peppi the Hunter rolled past pace-setter and even-money favorite Royal Almighty through the stretch of the sixth race, posting a two-and-a-quarter length victory in 1:11.71.

Peppi the Hunter was ridden by Pedro Cotto, Jr., who has seven victories from 14 starters at the Oldsmar oval. The sixth race was the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week.

Peppi the Hunter, which broke his maiden Aug. 31 at Delaware Park at odds of 73-1, might return in the $100,000 Pasco Stakes on Jan. 23, where he could face highly-regarded Ishaq, winner of the Dec. 19 Inaugural Stakes. Peppi the Hunter finished sixth of 11 that afternoon, beaten about eight lengths after being taken back early.

“We’ve known this horse could run since he was a baby,” said Minieri, a former restaurant owner who has owned racehorses since 1970 but only began training four years ago. “He’s got a lot of heart and a will to win, which we saw today.

“I got lucky finding him at the yearling sale. It’s a crap shoot there; you never know what they’ll grow up to be,” Minieri said.

Minieri also campaigned the stakes winner Peppi Knows. The names play off his given name, Giuseppe.

Down the stretch. Top jockey Antonio Gallardo put more distance between himself and his rivals in the standings, booting home home three winners to raise his meeting total to 40, 27 more than current runner-up Daniel Centeno. Gallardo is on pace to win 192 races, which would shatter the mark of 147 he established last season.

The 28-year-old Gallardo won the first race on 8-1 shot Wild Card Hit, a 4-year-old filly owned by Guarnieri Stables and trained by Antonio Sano. He added the fifth on the turf on El Clasico, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Kathleen Amaya and Raffaele Centofanti and trained by Efren Loza, Jr.

Gallardo also scored in the seventh race on R U Dreaming, a 7-year-old mare owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds and trained by Jamie Ness.

In the eighth race, Ness accounted for the exacta, with 6-year-old gelding Paltarrevenge besting Punster. The $2 exacta combination of 7-5 paid $74.20. Paltarrevenge is owned by Mark Hoffman and was ridden by Ricardo Feliciano.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The feature is the sixth race, a $25,000 allowance/optional claiming event bringing together an accomplished field of six older horses set to go seven furlongs on the main track.

The morning-line favorite at 2-1 is the 5-year-old gelding Brothersofthetime, a crack sprinter who has not won since his 2-year-old season in the Seacliff Stakes at Calder but has spent the past two-plus years racing against top-notch competition. He finished third in the Grade II Swale Stakes at Gulfstream as a 3-year-old. Jorge Navarro trains Brothersofthetime, who is owned by Gelfenstein Farm and will be ridden by Daniel Centeno.

The 6-year-old gelding Ghost Hunter, which has won three of four lifetime starts at Tampa Bay Downs and was a good third in his most recent effort, a mile-and-a-sixteenth starter stakes at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 5 that was taken off the turf, is second choice at 5-2. Ghost Hunter is trained by Jamie Ness and will be ridden by Antonio Gallardo.

Another intriguing entrant in the six-horse field is Thomas Shank and Stan Young’s 9-year-old Florida-bred gelding Good Lord, which is approaching the $800,000 mark in career earnings. He set the seven-furlong Tampa Bay Downs track record (since bettered) of 1:22.03 in winning the 2013 Super Stakes. Forrest Kaelin trains Good Lord, a stakes winner at six different racetracks. He will be ridden by Fernando De La Cruz.

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.