MORNING FIRE, R GIRLS A CHARMER SCORE IMPRESSIVE STAKES WINS

by Mike Henry

morning fire
Morning Fire, Daniel Centeno up, appears ready to take flight in the Pasco

Daniel Centeno sat motionless on the staircase inside the Tampa Bay Downs jockeys’ room a few minutes before being called for the $100,000 Pasco Stakes, focusing intently on his plan to get the 3-year-old Pennsylvania-bred colt Morning Fire to the winner’s circle.

Speed had been holding throughout the earlier races on a track made good by early-morning rain, and Centeno was fairly certain the inside was the best place to be. So when Morning Fire sped to an early lead from the inside No. 1 post position, the veteran rider knew he was in the catbird’s seat.

The Florida-bred gelding Epic Journey and jockey Pablo Morales mounted a brief challenge on the turn, but Centeno had plenty of gas left in the tank, and Morning Fire drew clear for a one-and-a-half length victory in 1:24.76 for the seven-furlong distance.

“That wasn’t exactly what we had planned,” said Keith Nations, who trains Morning Fire for the Mercedes Stables outfit of owner Ernie Moody. “We always thought he was a little bit better off the pace, but Daniel made the call and it was obviously a winning call.

Nations added that if Morning Fire comes out of the race well, the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the Feb. 13 Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card is the next logical step for the son of Friesan Fire-Four Star Morning. “We’ve had to push him to get him to sprint and we put the blinkers on him to hustle him a little bit, but he has a big stride and I think he is bred to go two turns,” Nations added.

Morning Fire’s victory in the 17th edition of the Pasco was the highlight of the Skyway Festival Day card on a cool, windy, intermittently sunny day. In the counterpart for sophomore fillies, the 32nd running of the $100,000, seven-furlong Gasparilla Stakes, R Girls a Charmer – purchased privately earlier this month by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer CEO Gary Barber – drew off to an easy-as-you-please, four-length victory from Cosmic Girl under jockey Antonio Gallardo. Mark Casse trains the winner.

Gallardo rode four winners and Centeno three on the 11-race card.

In the afternoon’s other stakes, the 32nd renewal of the $50,000 Wayward Lass, jockey Victor Lebron took a cue from Centeno and Gallardo, getting to the rail early on 4-year-old gray filly White Clover and leading the eight other fillies and mares on a merry chase before holding on for a two-and-a-quarter length victory from 7-5 wagering favorite Savings Account.

The Kentucky-bred White Clover is owned by Brad Kelley’s Calumet Farm and trained by George “Rusty” Arnold, II, who watched the race from south Florida.

In the Pasco, Epic Journey outbroke Morning Fire, but the latter responded to Centeno’s urgings and set all the fractions while protecting the inside position. “He broke pretty sharp and I went right to the rail,” said Centeno, who also won last year’s Pasco Stakes aboard Catalina Red. “I was able to get him to relax down the backside, and I waited for somebody to come get him (in the stretch), but he never looked back.”

The victory was the third in eight starts for Morning Fire, who finished second in four stakes as a 2-year-old (he was disqualified from the runner-up spot in the Strike Your Colors Stakes at Delaware).

“He kind of came to life the last couple of weeks,” said Nations, who had given Morning Fire time off after his second-place effort in the state-bred Pennsylvania Nursery on Dec. 5. “It depends how he comes out of it, but I think he has always wanted to go a route of ground.”

Awesome Slate finished third, nine lengths in arrears of Epic Journey. The winner’s time on the good surface was 1:24.76. He paid $10.80 to win as the second betting choice. Favorite Hands of Power never fired, finishing eighth in the 10-horse field.

Trainer Anthony Granitz was proud of Epic Journey’s performance. “That horse (Morning Fire) is well-seasoned, and my horse ran a great race coming off his maiden victory (on Dec. 19),” Granitz said. “We were hoping to get the lead, but we couldn’t clear the winner. The owner (Joseph Silich) had considered selling him, so I’m glad he turned down the offer."

r girls a charmer
R Girls a Charmer and Antonio Gallardo are home free


In the Gasparilla, R Girls a Charmer, a supplemental entry at a fee of $2,000, answered any questions about how she would like the Tampa Bay Downs surface by taking an early lead and cruising home in 1:25.61. “I was just chasing her all the way around,” said Fernando De La Cruz, the jockey on Cosmic Girl. “I knew she was going to be tough to catch at the three-eighths pole, and when I tried to get to her at the top of the stretch, (R Girls a Charmer) took off.”

R Girls a Charmer was purchased privately by Barber through Casse from her previous ownership group after her maiden victory Jan. 2 at Gulfstream, a six-and-three-quarter length triumph in a swift 1:10.10 for six furlongs.

“She was very impressive that day and ran a big figure, and they thought this was the right spot for her,” said Casse assistant Mitch Downs, who was accompanied to the winner’s circle by his 8-year-old daughter, Ashley. “The distance may have been more of a concern than the track, because there isn’t a lot of distance in her pedigree. We’ll just take her back to Palm Meadows (Training Center, in Boynton Beach) and see what’s next.”

Gallardo was very impressed by R Girls a Charmer’s style and ability. “She made the lead pretty easy, and I had a lot of horse in the stretch,” he said. “I think if someone else had put pressure on her (late), she would have taken off again. I like her a lot.”

The 42-1 shot Missalaney rallied for third in the eight-horse field. The Sandpiper Stakes winner, Hidden Treat, was scratched Saturday morning by trainer Arnaud Delacour because of the heavy track condition.

R Girls a Charmer paid $3.60 to win as the heavy betting favorite. The Florida-bred daughter of In Summation-Velvet Charm is 2-for-3 lifetime.

Sent off at odds of 13-1 in the Wayward Lass, White Clover might not have gotten the respect she deserved, considering she had won a stakes at Delaware last June and finished third in the Grade III Monmouth Oaks in August. Her time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance was a more-than-respectable 1:45.38.

“When she broke sharp, I thought ‘Let me take advantage of it, slow it down and hopefully the wind will push me along and I’ll get to the wire quicker,’ ” Lebron said, laughing. “Going into the turn I saw someone inside me and took a glance to the shadow, because I didn’t want them to know I still had a lot of horse.

“I slowly starter pushing her along, and at the top of the lane I decided to go for it and she came along,” Lebron added.

White Clover paid $29.80 to win. The Nations-trained Her Majesty’s Flag rallied for third.  

Down the stretch. Gallardo’s big day started in the third race on 4-year-old filly Bandolera’s Gold for owner Kenneth Kaelin and trainer Forrest Kaelin. He added the fifth aboard 3-year-old filly Annie Rocks for owner Southern Chase Farm and trainer William Downing, then captured the 11th, the Lambholm South Race of the Week on the turf, on 8-year-old mare Issheit for owner Rase Stables and trainer Jamie Ness.

Centeno won today’s first race on the 7-year-old gelding Inherently for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trainer Joe Woodard and scored in the eighth on 5-year-old gelding Simply Classic for owner Glorious Uncertainty Stable and trainer Brenda McCarthy.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. There will be a Pick-5 carryover pool of $27,207.09 entering the day.

The co-features are the eighth and ninth races. The eighth is a $23,000, one-mile turf allowance/optional claiming event for 3-year-olds, with an overflow field of 12 entered.

The ninth is a $23,000, six-furlong allowance/optional claiming race for horses 4-years-old-and-upward, with nine entered.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The track 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.