Kentucky Derby-winning trainer H. Graham Motion draws a couple of parallels between Rafting, his entry in Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, and Ring Weekend, which won the Tampa Bay Downs showcase two years ago.
“They’re both by the same stallion (Tapit, the leading U.S. sire the last two years),” Motion said today from his Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast. “And they were both horses I thought very highly of as 2-year-olds.”
A major difference is that Ring Weekend was only 1-for-5 before springing his Tampa Bay Derby upset, while Rafting won the Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park West on Nov. 28 as a 2-year-old and finished second in his 2016 debut to Destin in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes here on Feb. 13.
Still, judging Thoroughbreds this early in their careers (Rafting doesn’t officially turn 3 until May 1) can be tricky. Ring Weekend, now preparing for his 5-year-old debut after overcoming a foot abscess, was derided in some quarters as a one-hit wonder after finishing fifth in the Preakness, but he has blossomed on the turf, his three graded victories on the grass including last year’s Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. He has earned more than $1-million.
Consider the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, then, one of several proving-ground races for Rafting and his nine opponents, with the connections of most hoping their horse will give them reason to stay pointed toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 7 at Churchill Downs.
“My initial reaction after the Davis was that I was a little disappointed,” said Motion, who has again named Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado to ride his Wertheimer and Frere-bred and owned colt. “But in retrospect, I feel he probably benefited from the race. It’s a little tough to ship in after a long layoff, and he ran a good race, but he also ran a little green.
“He has done well since then, and he turned in a nice six-furlong workout last week in company with one of my good older mares (1:15 at Palm Meadows). The question now is whether he is good enough, and a lot depends on how he runs Saturday.
“He’s going to have to step up and prove he belongs with these kind of horses,” Motion said. “This is a big step, and I’m not going to be running him in Grade I races if he doesn’t prove he belongs.”
Rafting will break from the No. 2 post position. He is 6-1 on the morning line. Brody’s Cause, a fast-closing third in last year’s Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, has been established as a 5-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 36th running of the mile-and-a-sixteenth race on the main dirt track. He will break from the No. 8 post.
Owned by Albaugh Family Stable and trained by Dale Romans, Brody’s Cause will be ridden by Corey Lanerie. He had a light gallop this morning over the Oldsmar oval, and Romans, who is still recovering from a severe case of influenza that worsened during his recent trip to Dubai to run 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice in a prep for the Dubai World Cup, pronounced his sophomore standout fit and ready to go.
“I expect (Brody’s Cause) to win. He is coming into the race perfectly and seems to be plenty fit and happy with this racetrack,” Romans said. “The Breeders’ Cup got him started the right way, and I want to send him to the Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites.
“This is the prototype Derby horse,” added Romans, who won the 2011 Preakness with Shackleford and saddled Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan for third-place Kentucky Derby finishes in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby is the highlight of a quality-laden card offering a Tampa Bay Downs record $850,000 in stakes purses. It is the 11th race on a powerhouse 12-race card that begins at 12:23 p.m.
Also on tap on the Festival Day 36 Presented by Lambholm South program are the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf, featuring the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Grass Female, Tepin; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; and the $100,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track.
The entries for each race can be accessed online at www.tampabaydowns.com by clicking on the Equibase link on the home page, or by coming to Tampa Bay Downs or a simulcast outlet Saturday and purchasing a program.
The gates open at 10 a.m., and each of the first 7,500 fans to arrive receive a free cooler bag with the Tampa Bay Downs logo, with paid admission. The festivities begin with track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” show, featuring Duke Matties, who finished fourth in this year’s Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island Las Vegas.
The event was won by his brother, Paul Matties.
Like anyone involved in the industry, Motion – who trained Animal Kingdom to win the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands – is aware of the trend toward fewer starts leading to the Run for the Roses. Throw out Pasco Stakes winner and third-place Sam F. Davis Stakes finisher Morning Fire, which has started nine times, and the other Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby entrants have made an average of 3.56 career starts.
“I think in general, we tend to be a little more conservative (than in past years). You want your horse to be real good on the first Saturday in May, and the consensus now is that it is much better to have a fresh horse,” said Motion, who started Animal Kingdom four times before his Run for the Roses triumph. “There is a fine line between having enough seasoning and being fresh enough, but you also have to think to the next two races” (the Xpressbet.com Preakness and the Belmont Presented by DraftKings).
Motion is one of four trainers looking for a repeat Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby score. Todd Pletcher, who won here last year with Carpe Diem and in 2013 with Verrazano, sends out Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ Sam F. Davis winner Destin and Repole Stable’s Outwork, 2-for-2 including an impressive six-furlong allowance/optional claiming race here Feb. 13.
Javier Castellano will ride Destin and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will handle Outwork. Pletcher won the 2010 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands with Tampa Bay Derby third-place finisher Super Saver.
Mark Casse, who won the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective, has entered Team Valor International, Gary Barber and Tucci Stables’ Riker, 4-for-5 lifetime, including the Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine as a 2-year-old. Florent Geroux has been named to ride.
Barclay Tagg, who trained Funny Cide to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003, won the Tampa Bay Derby in 2008 with Big Truck. His entrant Saturday is Tale of S’avall, a Charles Fipke-bred and owned colt which has not raced since finishing fifth in last fall’s Grade I Champagne at Belmont. Joe Bravo will be the jockey.
Motion will also saddle Three Chimneys Farm’s 4-year-old filly Rainha Da Bateria in the Hillsborough. She is one of nine set to challenge Tepin, the 5-year-old Casse-trained superstar which followed up her Breeders’ Cup Mile victory last fall against males with a dominating victory here four weeks ago in the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour.
Rainha Da Bateria, which is 2-for-11 lifetime with three seconds while racing mostly in graded company, will be ridden by Prado. The field also includes Pletcher’s Grade II winner, Isabella Sings, and two quality 5-year-olds trained by Chad Brown, Grade I-winner Ball Dancing and French-bred Danza Cavallo.
Brown won last year’s Hillsborough with subsequent Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten. Motion won the 2014 edition of the nine-furlong grass test with Cloud Scapes, while Pletcher has won it four times: with Old Tune (2013), Phola (2010), Cassydora (2007) and Ready’s Girl (2006).
“It should be a (Grade) I,” Motion said. “The field is Grade I caliber. Tampa’s turf course is beautiful; it probably is in the best condition of any turf course this time of year, and there is a lot of appeal to running (Rainha Da Bateria) there.
“But I’d rather not be running against Tepin,” he added, perhaps with a resigned smile.
Down the stretch. Trainer Kathleen O’Connell saddled two winners on today’s card. She sent out 3-year-old Florida-bred filly Just My Game to win the fourth race under jockey Victor Lebron. O’Connell is a co-owner with James O’Connor. She also won the sixth race on the turf with 5-year-old gelding Thunderinwillie, owned by Blackacre Farms and ridden by Antonio Gallardo.
Jockeys Daniel Centeno and Fernando De La Cruz each rode two winners. Centeno captured the third race aboard 4-year-old gelding Megatrez for owner Pewter Stable and trainer Kathleen Demasi. He added the eighth on the turf on 5-year-old gelding Special Envoy for breeders-owners Mr. and Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone and trainer Arnaud Delacour.
De La Cruz won the first race on 5-year-old mare Miles of Styles for owner Cindy Patrick and trainer R. Gary Patrick. De La Cruz added the seventh on 8-year-old gelding El Grande Rojo for owners Billy, Donna and Justin Hays and trainer Joe Woodard.
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. The golf range will be open on Easter from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; the last bucket of dimpled eggs will be sold at 3:30 p.m.