by Mike Henry

triple chelsea

Triple Chelsea runs down Nite Delite (Courtesy John Duca/SV Photography)

Wilmer Garcia could feel his heart pounding as his 3-year-old filly Triple Chelsea narrowed a seemingly insurmountable deficit with every stride in the closing stages of today’s $100,000 Lightning City Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course.

“I was thinking I wasn’t going to get there,” the 24-year-old Garcia said a few minutes after Triple Chelsea’s pulsating neck victory from pace-setter Nite Delite in 55.60 seconds, a mere tenth of a second off the stakes record for the 5-furlong distance. “But my filly was striding perfectly with every jump and I never stopped riding her.

“When I saw her flash past that other horse right before the wire, I got so excited,” Garcia said.

His elation was not as visible through the stretch run as that of trainer Anthony Granitz and co-owner Calvin Johnston, who despaired momentarily after a rival jockey’s whip brushed Triple Chelsea’s face as she launched her winning rally between horses.

“That shows you how much class she has,” said Granitz, a long-time Oldsmar and Illinois-based trainer who won last month’s Grade II Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs with 4-year-old filly Lady Fog Horn – ridden that day by Nite Delite’s pilot, Albin Jimenez. “She has a lot of talent, and I told (Garcia) to ride her with a lot of confidence because there was a lot of speed in the field and to be patient.

“In her last race (a 5-furlong turf allowance at Churchill on Nov. 16), I thought she was the best horse, but another horse stopped in front of us” (resulting in a third-place finish, beaten less than a length). “We’ve been pointing her toward the Lightning City for a long time, and I wanted to win this race more than any other this year,” Granitz said.

Granitz and Johnston also thought there might have been some “Windy City” karma at work, too. “I haven’t taken my Cubs hat off” since the World Series, Granitz joked.

Johnston owns the filly in partnership with Carlos Tonda.

In defeating 11 rivals, all but two older horses, Triple Chelsea earned her fifth victory in nine starts. The $45,000 winner’s share of the purse raised her career bankroll to $187,760. She paid $20.80 to win.

Nite Delite ran a huge race after blazing fractions of 20.97 seconds for the quarter-mile and 43.54 for the half, finishing two-and-a-quarter lengths ahead of the 8-5 betting favorite, Everything Lovely, who was a length-and-a-quarter ahead of Southern Ring. Pretty Perfection finished fifth.

The winner is a Kentucky-bred daughter of Hat Trick, out of Oceane Music, and a half-sister to 6-year-old mare Laser Cat, who broke her maiden for Granitz and Johnston at Tampa Bay Downs as a 3-year-old.

Racing toward the rear of the field early, Garcia had an ideal trip until nearing the eighth pole, when he was forced to decide whether to swing outside horses or go through a narrow opening between Everything Lovely and a tiring Puntsville. He chose the gusto route, and Triple Chelsea didn’t hesitate despite the contact resulting from her rider’s bold move.

“I got a little nervous because my filly is kind of tiny and I thought they were going to squish me, but when I let her go she responded and was flying through the stretch,” he said.

Garcia also won today’s fourth race on 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding Pacific Image for owner Happy Tenth Stable and trainer Tony Wilson.

Granitz was delighted to emerge victorious with Triple Chelsea against a quality field that included the likes of Nite Delite, Grade III stakes winner Southern Ring, $500,000-plus earner and 2015 Lightning City winner Richies Sweetheart and the improving Everything Lovely. “This could have been a graded stakes with the quality of the field, and this turf course couldn’t be any better,” Granitz said.

Around the oval. Trainer Ben Colebrook and jockey Declan Cannon combined for two victories on today’s card. They won the first race with Bronze Venus, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Beverly Anderson and Edward Seltzer, and returned to the winner’s circle after the 10th with eye of Ra, another sophomore Florida-bred lass bred and owned by Anderson and Seltzer.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule throughout December, with the exception of Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. Sundays will be added to the mix on Jan. 1.

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