by Mike Henry

Trainer Mark Casse was in south Florida today readying his Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Colt, Classic Empire, for Saturday’s Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

But that didn’t prevent Casse from enjoying a classy victory by his 8-year-old gelding Captain Genius in today’s sixth race at Tampa Bay Downs.

Ridden by Gary Boulanger, Captain Genius surged to the lead in the stretch and rolled to a 1 ¾-length victory from Epic Journey in the six-furlong, allowance/$32,000 optional claiming contest. The time was a snappy 1:10.32. Captain Genius, a Florida-bred owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer CEO Gary Barber, paid $9 to win.

Making the victory especially noteworthy is that it was the first race for Captain Genius since April 30, 2015, when Casse claimed the graded stakes-placed horse for $62,500 from a fourth-place effort at Churchill Downs. The victory was his 11th in 23 career starts and raised his earnings to $362,617.

“When we claimed him, we found he had a lot of issues and had been through a lot of ordeals,” said Casse, a 2016 Eclipse finalist for Outstanding Trainer. “He underwent surgery and a couple of vets told us he probably would never run again.”

Casse turned Captain Genius out at his Casse Training Center in Ocala, and by last fall – almost 20 months after his previous race – the trainer became cautiously optimistic he could return to the races. An intensive program of cold-water spa therapy and swimming got Captain Genius feeling like a racehorse again, and a series of strong workouts at the center led to today’s smashing return to competition.

“It’s special because we recently opened the training center, and he was kind of the guinea pig with the spa work and the swimming,” Casse said. “He became the farm favorite, and everyone there loves him dearly. Getting him to this point is so rewarding and we are all extremely proud of him.”

Casse said the only immediate plan for Captain Genius is to return to the training center and “spend a lot of time in the spa.”

About 27 minutes after the victory by Captain Genius, Casse and Barber won a race at Fair Grounds with their 4-year-old filly Sound Defence. And at virtually the same time as that race, MGM executive Barber, also the co-founder of Spyglass Entertainment, won a race at Golden Gate Fields with 4-year-old filly Astra Star, trained by Steven Miyadi.

Casse’s horses will be in the spotlight throughout much of Saturday’s card at Gulfstream, which will be simulcast at Tampa Bay Downs.

In addition to the highly anticipated 3-year-old debut of Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire in the Holy Bull, which is the 12th race on the card, Casse also has the favorite for the Grade II Forward Gal Stakes for 3-year-old fillies in Pretty City Dancer.

The conditioner’s other graded-stakes entrants at Gulfstream on Saturday include Summer Luck in the Forward Gal; Vanish in the Grade II Swale Stakes for 3-year-olds; and 3-year-old filly Tamit in the Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes on the turf.

Casse hopes to bring his two-time Eclipse Award-winning Champion Turf Female, Tepin, to Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11 for a defense of last year’s victory in the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf and could have a pair of starters for the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds.

Around the oval. Past Tampa Bay Downs riding champion Jesus Castanon remains in fine form, winning the third and fourth races back-to-back today. Castanon took the third on Quasante, a 4-year-old filly owned by John Grossi’s Racing Corp., and trained by William Downing. He added the fourth aboard 4-year-old filly Mini Channel for owner JAH Racing and trainer Jonathan Thomas.

Edwin Gonzalez also rode two winners today, both on the turf. He won the seventh race on Blake’s Magic, a 7-year-old mare owned by Robert D. Bone and trained by Jamie Ness. Gonzalez won the ninth in a driving finish on 4-year-old colt Rapo, owned and trained by Michael A. LeCesse.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Saturday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The featured event is the eighth race, a $22,500 conditional allowance for horses 4-years-old-and-upward traveling a mile on the turf course. It has attracted an overflow field of 11 colts and geldings.

The 9-5 morning-line favorite is Cite, a 4-year-old colt trained by Hall of Fame conditioner William Mott and to be ridden by Daniel Centeno.

Tampa Bay Downs is open every day 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.