by Mike Henry

Todd Pletcher tackled the (now)-Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes for the first time in 2000 with Impeachment, when Tampa Bay Downs raised the purse money for the race from $25,000-added to $40,000-guaranteed.

The winner, trainer Ken McPeek’s Go Lib Go, had won the Grade III Tropical Park Derby at Calder two starts earlier, but managed only three claiming victories after the Sam F. Davis.

Impeachment lingered in last place for the first six furlongs of the race, staging a belated rally to finish a non-threatening fourth. Although his maiden triumph as a 2-year-old at Calder proved his only victory, Impeachment went on to finish second in the (now)-Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and third in the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

That season marked the start of Pletcher’s fruitful relationship with the Sam F. Davis, which has grown to be the Oldsmar oval’s second-richest race with a $250,000 purse and is part of the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points chase.

The seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer has entered both Fact Finding and Tapwrit in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis, the mile-and-a-sixteenth main-track event which is the centerpiece of the track’s Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card.

The Sam F. Davis is the 10th of 12 races. Post time for the first race is 12:12 p.m. The other stakes on the program are the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour, for older fillies and mares going a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the dirt.

Since 2005, Pletcher has brought 12 horses to the Sam F. Davis, winning six times (this is the fourth consecutive year he has sent two entrants). Vinceremos and Harpoon finished 1-2 in 2014, and the conditioner won last year’s race with Destin, who went on to set a track record in the Tampa Bay Derby and finish second by a nose to Creator in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.

Other stars from the Pletcher barn to use a Sam F. Davis victory as a stepping stone to greater success include Bluegrass Cat (2006), who won the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby, Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, Belmont and Travers; Any Given Saturday (2007), second in the Tampa Bay Derby and winner of the Dwyer Stakes, Haskell Invitational and Brooklyn Handicap; Rule (2010), who won the Grade II Monmouth Cup as a 5-year-old and was multiple Grade I-placed; and Brethren (2011), who finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby and won a stakes as a 5-year-old.

Among Pletcher’s Sam F. Davis winners, only Vinceremos, who was second in the Tampa Bay Derby, failed to win another stakes. The trainer’s lone Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner, Super Saver, did not run in the 2010 Sam F. Davis, but finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Each of Pletcher's first four Sam F. Davis winners were owned by WinStar Farm. WinStar owned Vinceremos in partnership with Twin Creeks Racing Stables; the latter was the sole owner of Destin at the time of his Sam F. Davis triumph.

“The Sam F. Davis has been a good launching pad for a number of our horses on the (Kentucky) Derby trail,” Pletcher said Thursday via a text message. “The timing of the race, the distance and the (Oldsmar) surface are attractive to bringing a good 3-year-old along.”

Pletcher appears to have two serious contenders in the unbeaten (3-for-3) Fact Finding, who will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, and Tapwrit, who will have Jose Ortiz in the irons.

“Fact Finding is training well and has done everything we’ve asked of him so far. This will be an interesting test for him,” Pletcher said. “Tapwrit continues to develop and mature. He tends to idle on the lead, but we think there could be more in the tank.”

The morning-line 2-1 favorite for the Sam F. Davis is trainer Ian Wilkes’ McCraken, whose 3-for-3 record includes a victory on Nov. 26 in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Regular pilot Brian Hernandez, Jr., will be in to ride.

The second choice at 4-1 is No Dozing, who has been preparing for his 3-year-old debut at Tampa Bay Downs since late December. A runner-up to Mo Town in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 26, No Dozing is trained by Arnaud Delacour and will be ridden by leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno.

Wild Shot, regarded at 5-1 by the track odds-maker, faced both of the top contenders as a 2-year-old, finishing second to McCracken at Churchill and third a race earlier in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, a head in front of No Dozing (Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Male Classic Empire was the winner).

George “Rusty” Arnold, II trains Wild Shot, who will be ridden by Robby Albarado. Arnold, who won two stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last season (the Suncoast with Weep No More and the Wayward Lass with White Clover), shipped Wild Shot here on Wednesday to give him a feel for the racetrack and the surroundings. The Calumet Farm-owned colt galloped over the surface and schooled in the paddock.

“He’s not a bad (-acting) horse by any means, but he has a lot of energy and I thought shipping him early would be beneficial,” Arnold said. “His gallops were a mile and a mile-and-a-quarter, but those were maintenance moves. You aren’t going to get a horse used to the track in two days, but I wanted him to get familiar with the surroundings.

“It’s a Derby prep race and there are Derby points,” said Arnold, referring to the 10-4-2-1 points awarded to the top four finishers toward qualifying for the May 6 Run for the Roses. “There are only so many of these races, so you have to dot all your ‘I’s’ and cross all your ‘T’s.’ We’ll see which horses have matured and gotten better, which have stayed the same and which have fallen off.

“Ian’s horse went by us convincingly (in the Kentucky Jockey Club), but horses change between their 2 and 3-year-old years,” Arnold said. “I’ve had a lot of good 2-year-olds that didn’t go on, and some average 2-year-olds that became very good 3-year-olds.”

Let the fact-finding process (no pun intended, really) begin.

Around the oval. Saturday’s Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South fun begins at 10 a.m. with track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” show on the first floor of the Grandstand. His special guest is owner and trainer Gerald Aschinger, who has Lots o’ Lex and Emerald Pond in the Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes and Itsnotezbeinbreezy in the Tampa Bay Stakes.

Attendees receive free donuts and coffee and Grandstand passes good throughout the meeting.

Trainer Tom Proctor improved to 12-for-23 for the meeting with a victory in the seventh race on the turf by 4-year-old gelding Chicago Style, a homebred racing for Glen Hill Farm. Ronnie Allen, Jr., was the jockey. Allen also won the eighth race on 6-year-old mare Indian Chaser for owner South Fork Creek Stables and leading trainer Gerald Bennett.

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.

Kids and Family Days. The first “Kids and Family Days” celebration of the 2016-2017 meeting is Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. in the Backyard Picnic Area just north of the paddock. Admission is free. Games, pony rides and bounce houses are among the numerous attractions. Partygoers can also expect a visit from the track mascot, Mouse the Miniature Horse.

Subsequent “Kids and Family Days” events are scheduled Feb. 26, March 5 and March 19.

“Live It Up Challenge” starts Saturday. Handicappers looking to travel to Las Vegas next winter and chase a jackpot of about $800,000 will get that opportunity through the fourth annual “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest sponsored by Tampa Bay Downs beginning Saturday.

There is no cost to register for the online competition, which runs through April 2. Players must register by 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Saturday at to participate.

The top two finishers in the “Live It Up Challenge” will each earn a seat in the 2018 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship, with the winner getting $1,000 and the runner-up receiving $500.

Ray Arsenault of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada won the recently concluded DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship from 65 other qualifiers at Treasure Island Las Vegas, collecting $800,000. The contest offered prize money totaling $2,900,600.

All wagers in the Tampa Bay Downs “Live It Up Challenge” contest are mythical. Once registered, players log on each racing day and select one horse from either of that day’s randomly selected “Challenge Races.” Each day’s winnings are based on the win, place and show pari-mutuel payouts on a player’s selection.

Each player begins the contest with a lifeline, to be used if their choice finishes out of the money. A player is eliminated from the contest when they lose all their lifelines.

Full rules are available on the contest website.

“Hearts Reaching Out.” Preparations are underway for the 25th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, Dinner and Charity Auction, to be held Monday, March 6. The event benefits the Race Track Chaplaincy of America—Tampa Bay Downs Division and those individuals at the track served by the RTCA.

The RTCA—TBD Division golf tournament, which is a four-person scramble, will be played at Cheval Golf and Athletic Club in nearby Lutz, with an 11 a.m. shotgun start. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. on the first floor of the Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand, followed by the live and silent auctions.

Items to be bid on during the auctions include horse racing and sports memorabilia, signed photographs and paintings, tickets to sporting events and gift baskets. There will also be a raffle for a Corriente saddle donated by Wayne Baize, a popular Cowboy Artist. Raffle tickets are $10 and will be available at the Chaplain’s office on the Tampa Bay Downs backside in the days leading to the event.

Cost for the tournament, dinner and auction is $100, with a $20 cost for those attending only the dinner and auction. Groups or individuals can sponsor a hole with signage at the tournament for $125. Table sponsorships for the dinner and auctions are also available, and the chaplaincy is accepting donations.

For details, call the Chaplain’s office at (813) 854-1313 or RTCA—TBD President Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870.