Derby fever is in the air as the Tampa Bay Downs community prepares for the most lucrative day in track history, Saturday’s Festival Day 36 celebration featuring four stakes races worth $850,000.
The focal point of the afternoon will be the 36th edition of the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt surface. The race is part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, offering 50, 20, 10 and 5 points to the first four finishers toward eligibility for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs.
Heading the list of probable Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby starters are the Dale Romans-trained Brody’s Cause, a Grade I winner which finished third in last year’s Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and trainer Todd Pletcher’s Destin, which won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 13.
Two horses that ran in the Tampa Bay Derby – Street Sense, which won the Oldsmar showcase in 2007, and 2010 third-place finisher Super Saver – have gone on to win the Run for the Roses.
Saturday’s other race likely to draw national attention is the 18th running of the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth turf contest for fillies and mares. Expected to compete is Robert Masterson’s 5-year-old mare Tepin, which won the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes here on Feb. 13.
Trained by Mark Casse, Tepin was voted a 2015 Eclipse Award as Champion Grass Female after her scintillating victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile against males.
Also on Saturday’s card are the 33rd edition of the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf race for 3-year-old fillies that has twice produced the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, and the 25th running of the $100,000 Challenger Stakes, a mile-and-a-sixteenth main-track event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward.
Entries for all four races will be taken Wednesday. The probable first-race post time for Festival Day 36 is noon. All reserved seating and dining areas are sold out. Cooler bags with an embroidered Tampa Bay Downs logo will be given free of charge to the first 7,500 fans, with paid admission.
Down the stretch. Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett, who tied a track record Saturday by going 4-for-4, extended his winning streak to five consecutive races in today’s first race with a victory by Mount Meru. The 4-year-old colt was bred by his owner, Thomas J. Young, and ridden by Fernando De La Cruz.
Bennett, who turns 72 Saturday, also won five in a row over successive days last season. He saddled eight consecutive winners at ThistleDown seven years ago. He will attempt to extend his streak with two starters on Wednesday’s program.
De La Cruz swept the early daily double, winning the second race on 5-year-old Florida-bred mare Stately Defence for owner Charles Fisher and trainer Thomas S. McCooey, Jr. Stately Defence was claimed for $5,000 by trainer Jamie Ness for his Jagger, Inc., stable.
The 3-year-old colt Tiger Blood turned in another impressive performance, winning the seven-furlong allowance/$75,000 optional claiming seventh race by five-and-a-half lengths under jockey Pablo Morales. Lookin for a Kiss was second. The winning Florida-bred son of Cowtown Cat-Sarah Cataldo, by Smarty Jones, had won his career debut at six furlongs on Jan. 30 by nine-and-a-quarter lengths, posting a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in the process.
Bred by Brent Fernung and Crystal Fernung, Tiger Blood is owned by Miguel Barraza and trained by Baltazar Galvan. His time was 1:24.90.
Morales also rode the 10th-race winner on the turf, 4-year-old gelding Hesmakingabigscene, for owners Invictus Racing Stable and BHMFR, LLC and trainer Stephen S. Lyster.
Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo won the eighth and ninth races back-to-back and had three winners on the card, pushing him to an even 100 for the meeting. In the eighth race on the turf, the 15th Sand Pebble Classic, he was aboard 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Cardinal Cove for owners Rick Pitino’s RAP Racing and Marc Haisfield and trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Cardinal Cove was claimed from the race for $25,000 by owner-trainer Dennis Griffith.
Gallardo won the ninth, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, aboard 3-year-old gelding Cash Munnings for owners John Haagsma, Brewer Racing and Lazy 2 Bar Racing and trainer Bobby V. Persad.
Earlier, Gallardo won the third race on 4-year-old filly Legendary Bird for breeder-owner Marylou Whitney Stables and trainer Ian Wilkes.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 27 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.