TRAINERS RHONE, MINIERI UNVEIL POTENTIAL-PACKED RUNNERS

by Mike Henry

Two of the track’s smaller stables enjoyed impressive victories on a rainy afternoon, stoking each trainer’s hopes for continued improvement this summer, with an eye toward competing in stakes company.

In the seventh race, a six-furlong conditional allowance/$16,000 optional claiming contest for horses 4-years-old-and-upward, 4-year-old colt Dog Soldier found another gear through the stretch and pulled away for a four-and-a-half length victory from Sandro in a snappy 1:10.90 on the sloppy track.

Dean Butler rode the 9-10 favorite, which is owned by Jason Bullard’s Empire Racing and trained by Bernell Rhone. Dog Soldier was coming off an impressive runner-up performance going seven furlongs on March 12 to the H. Graham Motion-trained Spring Quality.

Rhone, who races during the late spring and summer at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., said Dog Soldier’s next start will probably be in a five-furlong turf stakes up north. The son of 2004 Eclipse Award Champion Sprinter Speightstown is 2-for-4 at Tampa Bay Downs this meeting with two seconds, having broken his maiden on Jan. 17 by nine lengths going six-and-a-half furlongs.

Rhone purchased Dog Soldier last fall for $11,000 at a horses of racing age sale in Ocala, a few months after he ran unplaced on the turf at Arlington. “He had an (entrapped epiglottis), which affected his breathing,” Rhone said. “I sent him for surgery right after I bought him. I took a shot buying him and got lucky. As long as his breathing holds up, I think we’ll have a fun summer with him.”

The winner of today’s first race, 3-year-old gelding Peppi the Hunter, qualifies as the meeting’s king of the allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event. He won at the condition for the third time, surging up the rail to defeat Triple Crown nominee and 7-10 favorite Uncle Jerry by four-and-a-half lengths in 1:45.99 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth on the sloppy main track. Pedro Cotto, Jr., was the jockey.

A son of 2008 Breeders’ Cup Mile participant U S Ranger, Peppi the Hunter is owned and trained by Joseph Minieri, who purchased him as a yearling at Keeneland for $15,000. Peppi the Hunter’s earlier victories here at the $75,000 optional claiming level were at six furlongs on a fast main track and a mile-and-a-sixteenth on a firm turf course.

He finished unplaced in both the Inaugural Stakes and Pasco Stakes. Peppi the Hunter is 4-for-8 lifetime.

“He’s the kind of horse that makes it fun to get up and go to work every day,” Minieri said. “He gives you something to look forward to. He is just so easy to train. You don’t have to do anything special, just feed him and keep him happy. He’s a horse with no issues, knock on wood.

“I knew he would like the slop, because he trains well on it,” Minieri added.

Minieri hopes to give Peppi the Hunter another crack against stakes competition this summer at Monmouth or Delaware.

Trainer Christophe Clement and jockey Daniel Centeno combined for two victories today in races that were switched from the turf to the main dirt track. Their 4-year-old filly Tennessee Whiskey, bred and owned by Robert S. Evans, won the fourth race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week. The Clement-Centeno team added the ninth with first-time starter Almina, a 3-year-old filly bred and owned by Ghislaine Head.

Florida Cup XIV fast approaching. Six stakes races worth $75,000 apiece highlight Florida Cup XIV on April 9. The event is the brainchild of Tampa Bay Downs President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer and Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn, who derived their inspiration from a similar event at Delaware Park that featured enhanced purses and a sumptuous horsemen’s luncheon.

Supported by the track’s horsemen’s group, Florida breeders and title sponsors, the Florida Cup recognizes the Sunshine State’s excellence in breeding and raising Thoroughbreds capable of competing on a national scale. The state’s roll call of racing legends includes Affirmed, Dr. Fager, Silver Charm, Unbridled, Holy Bull, Needles, Carry Back, Afleet Alex, Skip Away, Cozzene, One Dreamer, Foolish Pleasure and Precisionist.

The Florida Cup also serves as a connection for patrons and fans between the March 12 Festival Preview Day, which this year featured a Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory by top Triple Crown candidate Destin and Tepin’s dazzling rally in the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, scheduled May 7 at Churchill Downs.

“The Florida Cup is an example of what can happen when everyone strives toward the same objective, which in this case is raising the profile of state-bred horses to a wide audience,” Flynn said. “Florida has been a hotbed of Thoroughbred breeding excellence for decades, and we are grateful for the support from state breeders and our horsemen in elevating the stature and popularity of the event.”

Breeders, owners and trainers are invited to a luncheon held under the tent in the track’s Picnic Pavilion Area.

Three Florida Cup XIV 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.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcasting wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.