CASSE NOMINATES AIROFORCE, ECLIPSE WINNER TEPIN TO FESTIVAL PREVIEW

by Mike Henry

Airoforce, a multiple graded-stakes winner and the runner-up in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Keeneland on Oct. 30, heads the list of 36 3-year-olds nominated to the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on the Feb. 13 Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card at Tampa Bay Downs.

Owned by John C. Oxley, who captured the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos, and trained by Mark Casse, a seven-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s top trainer, Airoforce breezed five furlongs this morning at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast in 1:00.25, the second-fastest of 32 recorded workouts at the distance.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won seven Eclipse Awards in his career, has enjoyed a virtual stranglehold on the Davis, winning five of the last 10 editions. His six nominees include Boalt Hall, owned by the Stonestreet Stables of Barbara Banke, which sent out 2015 Davis winner Ocean Knight.

The mile-and-a-sixteenth Sam F. Davis, which has produced at least one Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands in starter 10 of the last 12 years, is part of a lucrative card that will offer two additional Grade III races and $650,000 in stakes purse money.

Casse was just getting started when he nominated Airoforce to the Davis. His 5-year-old mare Tepin, honored as the 2015 Eclipse Award Champion Grass Mare after her victory against males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf at Keeneland – one of her three Grade I victories last year – heads a list of 33 nominees to the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares going a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf course.

The third graded stakes on the Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card is the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf. There are 45 horses nominated, headed by the Brian Lynch-trained 5-year-old Heart to Heart, whose last two starts resulted in victories in the Grade III River City Handicap and the Grade II Fort Lauderdale, and Grade II winner Old Time Hockey, a 7-year-old gelding trained by Tom Proctor.

Rounding out the Feb. 13 stakes offerings is the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the main dirt track. The Suncoast has attracted 27 nominees, including Pletcher’s multiple-graded stakes-placed Thrilled, a daughter of exciting sire Uncle Mo.

The 36th edition of the Davis, which has produced such notable winners as Burning Roma (2001), Bluegrass Cat (2006), Any Given Saturday (2007), General Quarters (2009) and Falling Sky (2013), is the major prep race for the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which will headline the March 12 Festival Day program offering a track-record $850,000 in stakes purses.

Although he has yet to win the Davis, Casse has found it much to his liking in recent years. In 2012, he saddled Prospective for a second-place finish, and that Oxley-owned runner returned five weeks later to win the Tampa Bay Derby and also captured the Grade III Ohio Derby.

In 2013, Casse and Oxley again finished second in the Davis with Dynamic Sky. He finished fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby, won by Falling Sky, but thrived on the turf in 2014, winning the Grade III Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct en route to winning a Sovereign Award as Champion Grass Horse in Canada.

In addition to his Breeders’ Cup second, Airoforce won the Grade III Dixiana Bourbon and the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a 2-year-old last fall.

Another well-accomplished Davis nominee is the gelding Sunny Ridge, from the barn of trainer Jason Servis. As a 2-year-old, he won the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct and finished second in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont.

Casse has also nominated Gary Barber’s gelding Whatawonderflworld to the Davis and Barber’s 5-year-old mare Lexie Lou to the Lambholm South Endeavour. The latter, which won the 2014 Queen’s Plate at Woodbine against males en route to being voted Canada’s Horse of the Year, finished third here earlier this month in her first start in almost a year.

Another top Lambholm South Endeavour nominee, the 5-year-old Chilean multiple-Group I winning Dacita, hails from the barn of trainer Chad Brown, who won the race in 2012 with subsequent Eclipse Champion Grass Mare Zagora and last year with Testa Rossi.

Down the stretch. Five-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno wasted no time returning to the winner’s circle after being forced to miss his last three mounts Saturday when he was kicked in the thigh by a horse in the paddock before the eighth race.

He delivered a textbook performance in today’s first race aboard Chelsie’s Chapel, getting through on the rail on the turn and keeping the 7-year-old mare focused to the wire. She races for owner Neal Allread and trainer Barbara McBride.

Another veteran jockey, Jorge L. Vargas, turned back the clock in the seventh race, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week. The 58-year-old Vargas and 5-year-old gelding Lock N Roll led the field on a merry chase throughout, posting the upset at odds of 13-1.

Vargas, who rode his first winner at Suffolk Downs in 1979 – the year Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby – is the father-in-law of Lock N Roll’s owner-trainer Laurine Fuller-Vargas, who is married to the jockey’s son, Jorge. The elder Vargas has more than 3,000 career victories.

The Fillies and Mares Division of the third leg of the Tampa Turf Test was taken off the turf, but that didn’t prevent 5-year-old mare Babe’s Ruler from turning in a crackerjack performance in her first career main track victory. She handled the mile-and-an-eighth distance with style under jockey Antonio Gallardo for trainer Jamie Ness and his Jagger, Inc., stable.

Ademar Santos and Ronnie Allen, Jr., each rode two winners today. Santos, whose bookings are handled by agent Therese Powers, herself a former jockey, won the fourth race on 5-year-old gelding Roundupthelute for owners South Fork Creek Stables and Midnight Rider and trainer Gerald Bennett. He added the eighth on Wedding Savior, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Lynn Rarick and trainer Randy Rarick.

Allen, who also employs a former jockey as his agent in Paula Bacon, won the third race on 4-year-old gelding Morning Buzz for owner Tony Malatino and trainer Ian Wilkes. He added the ninth and final race on 5-year-old mare Indian Chaser, which provided a double for owner South Fork Creek Stables and trainer Gerald Bennett.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. 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.

Sixth annual Golfest Presented by Valspar Championship is next weekend. Appearances by actor Christopher McDonald (also known as Shooter McGavin in the blockbuster movie, Happy Gilmore) and three-time PGA Tour winner Chris DiMarco, along with a $1-million Hole-in-One Contest, are among the highlights of the sixth annual Golfest Presented by Valspar Championship, to be held next Saturday and Sunday at The Downs Golf Practice Facility at Tampa Bay Downs.

Golfers of all ages and ability levels, as well as anyone eager to be introduced to the sport, will find much to strike their fancy at the Tampa Bay area’s largest golf expo and demo-day event. Golfest Presented by Valspar Championship hours are from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $10, with children 14-and-under getting in free. There is no charge for parking.

McDonald and DiMarco will team in Saturday’s Celebrity Golf Skills Challenge III, which begins at 1:15 p.m. The event features such “Big Break” Style contests as “Break the Glass,” “Closest to the Pin,” “Flop Shot Over a Wall” and “Longest Drive.”

They will compete against the two-time defending champions, WTSP-TV’s Reginald Roundtree and Dave Wirth; long-drive champion Mike Ziegler and retired Navy SEAL Scotty Norton; former Tampa Bay Rays pitchers Andy Sonnanstine and Dan Wheeler; former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Corey Ivy and a teammate to be determined; and one or two other teams.

McDonald and DiMarco will also appear on the Golfest Stage, which offers a wide range of entertainment, instruction and demonstrations from some of the top names in golf beginning at 10 a.m. on both days.

The $1-million Hole-in-One Contest gets underway with qualifying throughout the day on Saturday and on Sunday morning. Anyone landing a 155-yard shot within a 60-foot diameter circle will advance to the semifinals, in which the individual closest to the pin will qualify for one shot from 165 yards for the grand prize, which would be paid out over 40 years.

One shot at qualifying costs $3, with three shots for $5 and seven shots for $10. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the North Florida PGA Foundation, Thanks Troops – Tampa and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

Those charities will also benefit from the Golfest ’16 Silent Auction, which features more than 30 donated prizes worth in excess of $6,000. In addition to tickets to golf’s first 2016 major tournament in Georgia, prizes include tickets to the Valspar Championship Presented by BB&T and the Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Invitational; tickets to a Tampa Bay Lightning game; a day for four at Tampa Bay Downs, including lunch; rounds of golf for four at various area courses; and numerous other items.