by Mike Henry

After discussing the chances of his four stakes entries on Saturday’s Skyway Festival Day card, Keith Nations summed up the nervous anticipation he and his rival trainers are experiencing.

“Young horses and well-bred ones, that is what keeps us excited in this game,” Nations said. “Yeah, they are a lot of fun.”

Nations has two horses entered in the $100,000, seven-furlong Pasco Stakes for 3-year-olds: the 3-1 morning-line favorite Morning Fire, a colt owned by Mercedes Stables, and 12-1 Flashy Kyem, a gelding owned by Daniel McConnell and Lee H. Vosters. Daniel Centeno will ride Morning Fire, which breaks from the inside post, and Frankie Pennington is named on Flashy Kyem, which breaks from the outside post in the 10-horse field.

The Pasco is the seventh race on an 11-race card beginning at 12:20 p.m.

The Pennsylvania-bred Morning Fire finished second in four stakes in the Northeast as a 2-year-old, although he was disqualified and placed last in the Strike Your Colors Stakes at Delaware in August.

“He was getting a little tired at the end of the year, so we freshened him a little bit and the last two or three weeks he’s been training great and breezing well,” Nations said. “We’re real excited about (the Pasco). We look for him to probably lay just off the pace in a good stalking position, and hopefully he will make his big run down the lane.”

Flashy Kyem’s lone start resulted in a five-length victory in a maiden special weight race at Parx on Dec. 13, but the way he won indicated to Nations he may be ready for the big step up in class.

“He was boxed in almost the whole way and getting a lot of dirt, and when he angled out and got clear, he really exploded and finished up nice. I think he has a nice future, and I look for him to run well and do well for us down the road,” Nations said.

There are 10 3-year-od fillies entered in the $100,000, seven-furlong Gasparilla Stakes, which will be contested as the sixth race. The 5-2 morning-line favorite is trainer Mark Casse’s R Girls a Charmer, to be ridden by leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo.

Nations has entered Jay Ar Dee Stables’ Kylbrylie, which will be ridden by Pennington while breaking from the No. 9 post. Stakes-placed at Parx in November, she is considered a 20-1 outsider by the odds-maker.

“The race came up real tough, but I’m looking forward to her running a whole lot better than last time,” said Nations, referring to Kylbrylie’s fifth-place finish in an allowance/optional claiming race here on Jan. 3. “Maybe she just didn’t handle shipping here that well, or maybe it took her a little while to get used to her surroundings, but she is a big, beautiful filly with a good pedigree (Pulpit-Silver Time, by Indian Charlie) and she is liable to jump up and run a big race.”

The $50,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward attracted a field of 10. It is the ninth race on the card. The 3-1 morning-line favorite is 5-year-old mare Savings Account, one of two Tom Proctor-trained horses in the race. Ronnie Allen, Jr., is the jockey.

Nations and Mercedes Stable are represented by 4-year-old Her Majesty’s Flag, a stakes winner last summer at Woodbine in Toronto. Gallardo will ride the filly, which is making her first start on dirt and is 12-1. She breaks from the No. 10 post.

O’Connell honored as Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. Coming within a neck of winning a Breeders’ Cup race, then having the horse removed from your care, would be devastating blows for most trainers. But Kathleen O’Connell hasn’t thrived in the Thoroughbred business without being resilient.

O’Connell, who runs the 3-year-old colt Formal Summation in the Pasco Stakes, has been selected as the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. Approaching 1,800 career victories, she is third in the current Tampa Bay Downs standings with 15 winners.

O’Connell was at Gulfstream Park last Saturday for the 45th annual Eclipse Award ceremonies, in which her former star pupil, now-4-year-old filly Lady Shipman, was a finalist in the Outstanding Female Sprinter category. Although she finished third in the voting behind La Verdad and Wavell Avenue, Lady Shipman provided enough memories for her ex-conditioner to last a lifetime.

O’Connell soaked up the aura of the sport’s annual night of champions, which had a decided American Pharoah flair about it. “It was definitely a ‘who’s who’ of racing, with (American Pharoah trainer) Bob Baffert and the Zayats (breeder-owner Ahmed Zayat and his family) at the center of it,” O’Connell said. “And it was very exciting to see the horses spotlighted. That’s what it is all about, because without the horses, we are nothing.”

Lady Shipman won seven of 10 starts in her campaign, including six stakes at four different tracks. She finished second in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint to Mongolian Saturday, defeating 12 other males. She set track records in the six-furlong Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sprint for fillies on the Ocala Training Center all-weather track and in the five-and-a-half furlong Smart N Fancy Stakes on the turf at Saratoga, and her victory in the Coronation Cup on Aug. 3 was O’Connell’s first-ever stakes triumph at the venerable Spa in upstate New York.

The filly was recently moved to the barn of trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, apparently to prepare her for Dubai World Cup Day at Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates on March 26.

A two-time leading trainer at Tampa Bay Downs, O’Connell has trained such graded-stakes winners as 2011 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go, multiple-graded stakes winner Blazing Sword, Ivanavinalot and Fly by Phil. The latter’s 2010 Grade III Tropical Park Derby triumph clinched the Tropical meet title, making her the first woman champion trainer in Calder history.

O’Connell’s charges have earned in excess of $1-million each of the last 17 years, including a career-best $2,720,264 in 2015. “I started galloping horses for a few people here in 1976 and fell in love with the place,” said O’Connell, who has about 40 Thoroughbreds in training here and another 25 at Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder) for a variety of owners. “I’ve been here every meet since. Tampa Bay Downs is a wonderful place to train, the track has always been great with the horsemen and the weather is tough to beat.”

O’Connell’s main client is top Florida breeder-owner Gilbert G. Campbell, who has been sending her horses since 1990. “He has put so much into racing and supported the industry tirelessly,” she said. “I’m very proud of the relationship I’ve had with him and my other clients.”

Down the stretch. Jose Ferrer and his wife Steffi welcomed a new addition to the family Monday with the birth of their second son, Joseph Julius. He weighed in at 6 pounds, 6 ounces. Older brother Derek is 17 months.

“Steffi and Joseph are doing great,” Ferrer said this morning. “It is awesome for Derek to have a younger brother to play with, and I am going to take full advantage of my opportunity to raise both of them to be good men.”

Ferrer is fifth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 14 victories. He has ridden 3,996 winners in his career, including six at Camarero Race Park in Puerto Rico.

My Johnny Be Good, a 4-year-old colt which finished third in last year’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes before disappointing performances in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby and the Al Naboodah Group UAE Derby, made his long-awaited return to the races in today’s second race, finishing second behind 5-year-old gelding Tiger Tank in a six-furlong allowance/optional claiming event.

The winner scored a four-and-a-half length victory in an impressive time of 1:11.18. Tiger Tank is trained by Ben Colebrook and was ridden by Daniel Centeno.

My Johnny Be Good had been laid up at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., before returning to training in the fall. Trainer Eoin Harty said there was nothing physically wrong with the son of Colonel John, but his sub-par races indicated he needed time off.

“The track was a little tiring today, so I thought it was a good effort,” Harty said. “I told (Antonio Gallardo) not to rush him because he hadn’t run for so long, and they went the first quarter in 22 and change, so if he’d been part of that there would have been four in a line and I don’t think any of them would have gotten anything.

“There is no reason to be disappointed in today’s race. He’s very sound, and I think with a race under him he can be a different horse the next time,” Harty said. “We’ve still got faith in him.”

Harty has five horses entered in Saturday’s stakes: three in the Gasparilla and two in the Wayward Lass.

Centeno also won the eighth race on 3-year-old filly More Than a Image for owner Martin Goodell and trainer Gerald Bennett. Ronnie Allen, Jr., also rode two winners. He scored in the fifth on Dreamed a Dream, a 7-year-old mare bred, owned and trained by Robert A. Raymond. Allen added the 10th on 3-year-old filly Evening Prize for owners Diamond M Stable and Invictus Racing Stable and trainer Ian Wilkes.

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.