TRAINER OF MONTH WILKES KEEPS LOOKING AHEAD; DE LA CRUZ WINS 3

by Mike Henry

Ian Wilkes was hoping déjà vu might kick in during the March 12 Festival Day 36 Presented by Lambholm South card at Tampa Bay Downs.

Four years ago, Wilkes sent out a then-4-year-old colt, Fort Larned, to win the mile-and-a-sixteenth Challenger Stakes at the Oldsmar oval for the runner’s first career stakes victory.

After subsequent victories in the Grade III Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream; the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows; and the Grade I Whitney Invitational at Saratoga, the Janis R. Whitham-owned homebred was set for a lifetime performance at Santa Anita in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic, which he won by a half-length from Mucho Macho Man at odds of 9-1.

None of this is to suggest Wilkes might have begun pointing the Waldorf Racing Stables-owned Neck ’n Neck to racing’s ultimate challenge had he won this season’s $100,000 Challenger 18 days ago.

But after the 7-year-old’s gutsy runner-up effort to Adirondack King, Wilkes, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month, began plotting the next step for his reliable millionaire, a winner of four graded stakes and the third-place finisher in last year’s Grade II Marathon at Keeneland on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

“He came out of the Challenger very well, so we’ll probably point him toward the (Grade III) Ben Ali Stakes (at a mile-and-an-eighth) at Keeneland (on April 16),” Wilkes said. “Neck ’n Neck is a horse that loves racing, and he doesn’t need a lot of time between races, knock wood.”

Wilkes, who has sent out seven winners at Tampa Bay Downs in March, is also looking forward to the return of 4-year-old gelding Island Town, a multiple graded-stakes winner which underwent knee surgery after an eighth-place finish last September in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby. Wilkes plans to begin breezing Island Town soon, with an eye toward racing him during the second half of the year.

Other top performers in the Wilkes barn include the stakes-winning and multiple graded stakes-placed 5-year-old gelding Viva Majorca; 4-year-old graded stakes-placed gelding Senor Grits; and the graded stakes-placed 4-year-old colt Quality Bird, a Marylou Whitney Stables-homebred which Wilkes thinks has a bright future on turf.

As if that isn’t sufficient to keep the 50-year-old conditioner busy, Wilkes is enjoying a milestone-laden year on the home front. He and wife Tracey, who is preparing for the stable’s return to Kentucky this spring, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in February.

In May, their 25-year-old daughter, Shelby, is marrying jockey Chris Landeros. After the wedding, 23-year-old son Brodie, who gallops for his father at his Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach, Fla., will embark on a tour of Australia, where the elder Wilkes spent his formative years learning from trainers Paul Sutherland, Vic Thompson, Jr., and Colin Hayes.

The swirl of activity is fulfilling, but Wilkes still craves the supreme thrill he got from his association with Fort Larned and with Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense (2007) and Unbridled (1990), both of which he worked with extensively as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger.

“You’re only as good as your last winner, and when you’ve reached the pinnacle you always want to get back there,” Wilkes said. “Being competitive in a Grade I race is a great feeling, and when you’ve had a taste of that, the hunger is always there. You’re eager to develop your next big horse and get back to the top.”

Wilkes has about 60 horses in training, with 40 at Palm Meadows and 20 at Tampa Bay Downs. He will spend the next several months at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. His assistant, Peggy Dunleavy, has taken a leave of absence to be with her ailing father in New York; Karen Salisbury has taken over her duties locally.

“The whole key with a stable this size is having good help. That’s a main factor in my success,” Wilkes said. Veteran jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., who rode Fort Larned in his 2012 Challenger victory, has been the trainer’s “go-to” jockey for several years.

“He is a solid rider and someone who understands horses, and that helps,” Wilkes said.

Down the stretch. Fernando De La Cruz rode three winners on today’s card. De La Cruz won the second and third races, first scoring on 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding A Laugh an a Joke for owners W. Mike Anderson and J.E. Brown and trainer Jason DaCosta. The jockey won the third race aboard 4-year-old filly Innovative Idea for owner Godolphin and trainer Eoin Harty.

De La Cruz added the 10th race to his ledger on Lil Miss Tioga, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned and trained by Ray Trisler.

Trainer Robert Raymond sent out two winners for owner Touchdown Stable. The 5-year-old Florida-bred mare Can’t stop Believn won the sixth race under jockey Dean Butler. Raymond returned to the winner’s circle after the eighth race with 14-1 shot Synthesizer, a 7-year-old gelding ridden by apprentice Kevin Mendez.

Butler rode a pair of winners in back-to-back races. He won the fifth race on Well Composed, a 4-year-old filly, for owner Barry R. Ostrager and trainer Raymond Stifano.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The co-features are the third race, a conditional allowance/$32,000 optional claiming event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going seven furlongs on the main track, and the seventh race, a conditional allowance/$16,000 optional claiming contest for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track.

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

Plans are underway for the April 9 Florida Cup Day XIV card, which recognizes the Sunshine State’s excellence in breeding and raising high-quality Thoroughbreds. The Florida Cup consists of six $75,000 stakes races for registered Florida-breds. Three races will be contested on the main dirt track and three on the turf course, with half the races exclusively for 3-year-olds, one for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward and two for older horses.

The full Florida Cup Day card consists of the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Sprint, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going six furlongs on the dirt; the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore, for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs on the main track; the Tampa Turf Classic, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-an-eighth on the grass; the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, for fillies and mares 3-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass; the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, for 3-year-old females going seven furlongs on the dirt; and the Sophomore Turf, for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass.