by Mike Henry

The most lucrative stakes schedule in track history begins Saturday with 2-year-olds of both sexes set to compete in a pair of $100,000, 6-furlong races.

The 32nd running of the Inaugural Stakes, for 2-year-old males, is the seventh race on the card and has drawn a field of eight colts and geldings. The 38th renewal of the Sandpiper Stakes, for fillies, is the ninth race, with 10 entered.

The Inaugural and the Sandpiper are the showcase events on a 10-race Cotillion Festival Day card featuring a full slate of 2-year-old races. The six-figure events are part of a 24-stakes program that will offer $2.975-million in combined purse money between now and April 2.

Post time for the first race is 12:25 p.m. Recent winners of the two races include 2014 Inaugural victor Catalina Red, who won the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes in May, and 2008 Sandpiper winner Dr. Zic, who won the Grade I Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland as a 4-year-old.

Today’s festivities begin at 8 a.m. with the annual “Breakfast at the Downs” buffet in the Picnic Pavilion Area. The cost is $8 and includes Grandstand admission and a Tampa Bay Downs program.

A year ago, owner-trainer Jason DaCosta might have considered the odds of having two contenders for the Inaugural remote after spending $15,000 – combined – for Obvious One and Downtownbigbrown at a pair of Fasig-Tipton 2015 Yearling Sales.

The unpredictability of the horse racing game is well-documented, of course, and Obvious One, purchased by DaCosta for $5,500, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the Inaugural, based on two impressive victories at ThistleDown in Ohio by a combined 12 ¼ lengths.

Walter De La Cruz has been named to ride the gelded son of Bodemeister-Princess Cecilia, who breezed five furlongs Sunday in 1:02 2/5 in preparation for his third career start.

“He has shown me so far that he is an ultra-talented horse,” DaCosta said. “He has won both his races pretty much in hand, and he still drew off in his second race even though he broke slowly. He definitely has the potential to be one of the better horses I’ve had.”

Downtownbigbrown, whom DaCosta owns in partnership with John T. Brown, finished a decent third behind Obvious One in a Sept. 19 maiden race at JACK Thistledown Racino. The gelded son of Big Brown-Livia Drusilla has won his subsequent two races at the Ohio track by a combined 22 ½ lengths. DaCosta has yet to name a rider for the Inaugural.

“He has improved with every race. I do think he might be better suited to longer distances,” DaCosta said.

Obvious One and Downtownbigbrown have earned a combined $58,450, which, when factoring in expenses, hasn’t made DaCosta independently wealthy. Still, to have such promising runners deliver when he purchased them for next-to-nothing is an uplifting experience.

“I don’t see why they sold so cheap, but they sure look like bargains,” he said. “In terms of their physical appearance, they both looked very athletic, which is the kind of horse I like to buy. So they caught my eye and were in my price range, and I was very lucky to get them.”

It goes without saying that DaCosta would like to finish 1-2 in the Inaugural, or maybe dead-heat for victory, but he is equally hopeful both horses show enough “stuff” to advance to the $100,000, 7-furlong Pasco Stakes on Jan. 21. “Tampa Bay Downs has a nice stakes program for 3-year-olds, so moving on is definitely the objective,” he said.

The other conditioner with two horses in the Inaugural, Gerald Bennett, also landed a bargain when he purchased Chance of Luck for $6,500 for owner J J Brevan Stable in June at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale. In his only race, Chance of Luck (by Skipshot, out of Winning Chance) sped away to a five-and-a-half length maiden claiming victory going seven furlongs at Laurel.

“He’s been working really well since we got here, and he galloped out extremely strong in his second work (five furlongs in 1:02 2/5 on Nov. 23),” said Bennett, who will again use Erick Rodriguez to ride. “He has a tremendous stride, and hopefully he has enough breeding in him to be a (Grade II Lambholm South) Tampa Bay Derby horse.”

Bennett has also entered Triumphant Joy, who won his only start Oct. 8 at Delaware by five lengths. Owned by South Fork Creek Stables, Triumphant Joy will be ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr. “He has a lot of speed, and if the track is fast I think Ronnie will let him do his thing and they’ll have to catch him,” Bennett said.

Bennett trains the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Sandpiper, R Angel Katelyn. She will be ridden by Oldsmar newcomer Edwin Gonzalez. Owned by Averill Racing and CCF Racing Stable, R Angel Katelyn is 2-for-3 in her short career, including a victory Nov. 12 in the Juvenile Filly Sprint at Gulfstream Park West.

“She is a super-nice filly with a lot of ability,” Bennett said. “She has a lot of speed, but she isn’t one-dimensional; she can sit off the pace, so we’ll try to play the race by ear and see how it develops.”

Bennett will face a double-barreled challenge in the Sandpiper from trainer Kathleen O’Connell, who sends out Rashette (third in the Juvenile Filly Sprint) and Lu Lu Laura. Two others likely to draw significant interest from bettors are Jumby Bay, a supplemental entry from the barn of top trainer Todd Pletcher, and La Key, who defeated R Angel Katelyn on an off-track at Delaware on Oct. 8.

Around the oval. Pablo Morales rode both winners in the early daily double today, giving him three consecutive victories over a two-day period. He guided 7-year-old mare Citizen Jane to victory in the first race for owner Mike Martin and trainer Dale Bennett (Gerald’s son). Morales added the second race on Tiger Blood, a 3-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Miguel Barraza and trained by Darien Rodriguez.

Fellow Peruvian jockey Fernando De La Cruz also rode two winners. He was aboard 3-year-old gelding Big Silver Hoss in the third for owners South Fork Creek Stables and Winning Stables and trainer Gerald Bennett and captured the seventh on 3-year-old filly Sashenka for owner Cindy Patrick and trainer R.G. Patrick.

Gerald Bennett is sending two horses to Gulfstream Park for today’s Claiming Crown. His 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding, Fast Flying Rumor, is the 4-1 morning-line favorite for the $110,000 Claiming Crown Canterbury Stakes, which is a five-furlong turf event. Fast Flying Rumor won last season’s $100,000 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs, establishing a Tampa Bay Downs record with a 108 Beyer Speed Figure.

The elder Bennett has also entered 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Royal Jewely in the $125,000 Tiara at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.

Other Tampa Bay Downs-based trainers with Claiming Crown runners include Jamie Ness; Larry Rivelli; Eddie Kenneally; Maria Bowersock; Buff Bradley; Derek Ryan; and Rob O’Connor, II.

Ness has the morning-line 3-1 favorite for the $110,000 Iron Horse in 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding Racetrack Romance. Rivelli has the 3-1 favorite for the Tiara, 5-year-old Florida-bred mare Daddy’s Boo.

The Iron Horse, the Canterbury and the Tiara are the seventh, eighth and ninth races, respectively, on the Gulfstream card. All the action will be simulcast at Tampa Bay Downs.

The Oldsmar oval is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.