MORNING FIRE SET TO TAKE ON SOUTH FLORIDA INVADERS IN DAVIS

by Mike Henry

Keith Nations lacks the glittering credentials of his training rivals in Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes. But he made it clear this morning he doesn’t want to trade places with any of them.

Nations, who will saddle Pasco Stakes winner Morning Fire for the 36th edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth contest for 3-year-olds, believes the Pennsylvania-bred colt is primed for another top effort after breezing four furlongs on the Tampa Bay Downs strip on Saturday in 49 2/5 seconds with rider Daniel Centeno in the irons.

The Sam F. Davis Stakes, which has produced one or more Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands starters in 10 of the last 12 years, is the centerpiece of a 12-race Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card offering $650,000 in stakes purses.

“(Morning Fire’s breeze) was a smooth work and he galloped out well,” said Nations, whose charge will face six rivals from the barns of such renowned conditioners as Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse, H. Graham Motion and Brian Lynch. “He’s plenty fit, and I don’t know if he’s ever been better.”

Although he has eight career starts, with three victories, Morning Fire – purchased privately by Mercedes Stables before the Pasco – has yet to race beyond the seven-furlong distance of the Pasco. He will break from the No. 6 post position.

“I’ve been looking forward to stretching him out (in distance), and it will be interesting to see how he handles it,” said Nations. “It’s always a good thing to play in your own backyard and not have to ship, and I think (the Pasco victory) will benefit him.

“If he handles the distance and gets a good trip, I think he should fit well with those horses.”

A field of seven colts and geldings will contest the Sam F. Davis, including a pair of gray colts trained by Todd Pletcher, who has sent out the winner of the race in five of the last 10 years. The Davis is the fifth race on the card, with a jockey roster that includes Hall of Fame members John Velazquez and Edgar Prado and three-time reigning Eclipse Award Outstanding Jockey, Javier Castellano.

While top-quality 3-year-olds are always in the spotlight this time of year, the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf, slated as the eighth on the card, could feature a showdown between stablemates which have proven themselves at the highest level of competition.

Trainer Mark Casse has entered both 5-year-old mare Tepin, voted an Eclipse Award as Champion Grass Mare after winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland, and 5-year-old Lexie Lou, voted Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2014 following a season that included victories in the Queen’s Plate against males and the Woodbine Oaks.

The 17th renewal of the Lambholm South Endeavour, which has drawn a field of seven, will be the eighth race on the card.

The other graded race Saturday is the 30th edition of the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf. A wide-open field of 12 will compete, including two from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer William Mott – 4-year-old colt A Lot and 5-year-old Argentine import Take the Stand – and fellow Hall of Fame trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey III’s 7-year-old Reload.

The Tampa Bay Stakes is the 10th race on the card. Preceding it is the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, a mile-and-40-yard event that has attracted a field of 12.

Also on the card is the $35,000 Challenger Prep, a mile-and-40-yard main track event for older horses scheduled as the third race.

Back to the Sam F. Davis, which boasts a pair of Triple Crown nominees in Pletcher’s one-two punch of Gettysburg and Destin. Both have been training at Palm Beach Downs in Delray Beach in preparation for the race.

Castellano has been named to ride Gettysburg and Velazquez will be aboard Destin.

The betting favorite at post time could be trainer Motion’s Kentucky-bred colt Rafting, a homebred son of top sire Tapit bred and owned by Wertheimer and Frere. Rafting will be making his first start since winning the Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park West on Nov. 28. Prado will again have the riding assignment.

Rafting is trained by H. Graham Motion, who saddled Animal Kingdom to win the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Rafting is currently ranked No. 11 on racing journalist Steve Haskin’s “Derby Dozen” Presented by Shadwell Farm, a weekly feature at www.bloodhorse.com

Rounding out the Sam F. Davis field are the Casse-trained Whatawonderflworld, a winner of three consecutive starts, including the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Championship Stakes on Jan. 26, to be ridden by Jose Lezcano; Lynch’s Awesome Slate, the third-place Pasco Stakes finisher, jockey Julien Leparoux up; and No More Chillin, trained by Ron Potts and to be ridden by Huber Villa-Gomez.

The Sam F. Davis Stakes is the main prep race for the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 12.

Down the stretch. Jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode four winners on today’s card, while Daniel Centeno booted home three as the veterans dominated the action.

Allen, a four-time Oldsmar riding champion, grabbed the first race on 7-year-old gelding Thunder Harbor, owned by Winning Stables and La Marca Stable and trained by Gerald Bennett. He won the fifth race on the turf on first-time starter Be Mine, a 3-year-old filly owned by White Hall Lane Farm and trained by Kathleen O’Connell.

Allen came right back in the sixth on Sandpiper Stakes runner-up A Little Attitude, a 3-year-old filly owned by James and Melissa Jenkins and trained by Randy Klopp. He added the ninth and final race on the turf on 3-year-old gelding Gettinjazzywithit for breeder-owner South Fork Creek Stables and trainer Bennett.

Centeno’s victories came consecutively in races two through four, giving him eight winners over the last four racing days.

The five-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey won the second race on 7-year-old gelding Inherently for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trainer Joe Woodard. He won the third race on the turf aboard Water Cube, a 4-year-old gelding racing for owner Charm City Racing and trainer H. Graham Motion.

Centeno then won the fourth on Duke of Luke, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Juan Arriagada and trained by Alison Hassig.

A Triple Crown nominee out of the Pletcher barn won the eighth race. All World, a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, rallied under jockey Manoel Cruz to defeat War Order and Edgar Prado by a length. All World is owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 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.

Live It Up Challenge. Saturday marks the start of the “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest, which offers a grand prize of $1,000 and a seat at the 2017 National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

There is no entry fee. The contest runs through Florida Cup Day, which is April 9. Online registration for the contest is underway and can be accessed on the track website at www.tampabaydowns.com

Each player will be able to select one of two challenge races each day and place a mythical $2 win-place-show wager on their selection for that race. Players begin the contest with one free lifeline. Additional lifelines will be available for purchase throughout the course of the contest by anyone whose selection finishes out of the money or who misses a day, for whatever reason.

For a complete set of rules and information, visit https://www.liveitupchallenge.com on the Internet.

Chaplaincy benefit golf tournament set. The Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) – Tampa Bay Downs Division will host its 24th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” golf tournament and fundraiser on March 7 to support the continued work of the chaplaincy. The tournament, which has a four-person scramble format, will begin at 11 a.m. at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar.

A dinner, awards ceremony and auction will be held beneath the pavilion tent at Tampa Bay Downs afterward, with the dinner getting underway at 5 p.m. The cost is $100 for the tournament, dinner and auction, $20 to attend the dinner and auction only.

Donors are asked to support the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA in any of the following ways:

  • As a volunteer;
  • By sponsoring a golf hole for $125;
  • By playing in the tournament;
  • By attending the dinner and purchasing an item in the live and/or silent auction;
  • By donating money or an auction item.

For details or to reserve a spot in the tournament, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 854-1313.