by Mike Henry

McCraken, the unbeaten colt who sits atop Thoroughbred racing’s 3-year-old rankings following his record-shattering victory here in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 11, heads a group of 46 sophomores nominated to the 37th renewal of the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 11 at Tampa Bay Downs.

Contested at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track, the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby is the centerpiece of the track’s annual Festival Day program, which includes five stakes races worth a combined $925,000 in purse money.

Joining McCraken on a star-studded list of nominees are Classic Empire, the 2016 Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Male; unbeaten (3-for-3) Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes winner Irish War Cry, from the barn of H. Graham Motion; multiple graded-stakes winner Gunnevera; Tapwrit, State of Honor and Wild Shot, the second, third and fourth-place finishers in the Sam F. Davis; and No Dozing, the sixth-place Sam F. Davis finisher who breezed four furlongs today at Tampa Bay Downs in 47 2/5 seconds, the fastest of 62 workouts at the distance.

The other graded stakes on Festival Day are the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf and the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.

The Hillsborough received 23 nominations, headed by 5-year-old mare Isabella Sings, who won the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the turf here on Feb. 11.

The Florida Oaks attracted 31 nominees, headed by Coasted, the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita; Daddys Lil Darling, the winner of the Grade II Pocahontas Stakes in September at Churchill Downs and the runner-up in the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland; and Grade III winners La Coronel and Rymska.

Leah Gyarmati trains Coasted and Ken McPeek trains Daddys Lil Darling. La Coronel is trained by Mark Casse, while Chad Brown conditions Rymska.

Rounding out the Festival Day stakes offerings are the $100,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile on the turf.

The first 7,500 fans through the gates will receive a commemorative Festival Day umbrella with paid admission. The inside lining of the umbrellas are decorated with color photographs of the 2016 Festival Day stakes winners: Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin, Hillsborough Stakes winner Tepin, Florida Oaks winner Baciami Piccola and Challenger Stakes winner Adirondack King.

The 2017 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby is a Kentucky Derby Championship Series event on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” awarding points toward qualifying for a spot in the 143rd Run for the Roses on May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The winner of the Oldsmar showcase will earn 50 points, with 20, 10 and 5 points awarded to the next three finishers.

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands field is restricted to 20 horses. McCraken is tied for fourth with 20 points.

Trainer Ian Wilkes has expressed his intention to bring McCraken from his Palm Meadows Training Center base TO Oldsmar for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which has produced two winners of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands: 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense and Super Saver, who won the 2010 Kentucky Derby after finishing third in Oldsmar.

In 2007, Wilkes worked as an assistant to Street Sense’s conditioner, Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger.

McCraken displayed his outstanding talent and a liking for the Oldsmar surface in the Sam F. Davis, rallying from near the rear of the field to win on a track that appeared that day to be favoring early-speed types. The Whitham Thoroughbreds-owned and bred youngster set a stakes and track record for the mile-and-a-sixteenth of 1:42.45, winning by a length-and-a-half under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., to improve to 4-for-4 in his career.

The previous mark of 1:42.82 was set by Destin in last year’s Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

In addition to being atop both the Daily Racing Form and BloodHorse rankings, McCraken is the front-runner in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top 3-Year-Old Poll. He received 20 of a possible 40 first-place votes and has 362 points, with Irish War Cry and Classic Empire next in line.

Classic Empire, who finished third to Irish War Cry in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park, exited that race with a hoof abscess, and his next start has yet to be determined. Classic Empire concluded his juvenile championship campaign with a victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita.

Tapwrit, the Sam F. Davis runner-up, is one of 14 nominated to the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby by Todd Pletcher, more than any other trainer. Pletcher has sent out three of the last four winners of the race: Destin (2016), Carpe Diem (2015) and Verrazano (2013). Pletcher also won the 2004 Tampa Bay Derby with Limehouse.

Doug O’Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winners I’ll Have Another (2012) and Nyquist (2016), has seven Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby nominees, headed by recent Grade II San Vicente Stakes winner Iliad.

Pletcher is the trainer of Isabella Sings, who won the Lambholm South Endeavour by three lengths under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Should she start in the Hillsborough, Isabella Sings would have a chance to join Pletcher’s Cassydora (2007), Dreaming of Anna (2008), Zagora (2012), Old Tune (2013), Cloud Scapes (2014) and Tepin (2016) as horses to win both the Lambholm South Endeavour and Hillsborough.

Top trainers Chad Brown and William Mott have each nominated three horses to the Hillsborough. Brown’s contingent is headed by Lambholm South Endeavour runner-up Light In Paris, while Mott’s contingent includes multiple graded-stakes winner Suffused, a 5-year-old mare.

All told, the five Festival Day stakes closed with a total of 167 nominations. For an entire listing, click on

Around the oval. Alfonso Macerola joined the ranks of winning trainers in today’s fifth race with Coquivacoa, who defeated 11 rivals in the race for maiden fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward. Coquivacoa paid $59.00 to win. The Florida-bred 4-year-old is owned by Patricia Dehart and was ridden by Ademar Santos.

Dean Butler and Ronnie Allen, Jr., each rode two winners on today’s card. Butler’s first victory came in the fourth race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding String Puppet for owner-trainer Bernell Rhone. Butler next won the sixth race on the turf on Enroute, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Godolphin Racing and trained by Eoin Harty.

Allen won the seventh and eighth races, first scoring on Honest Fight, a 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Luis De Hechavarria and trained by Kathleen O’Connell. Allen added the eighth, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week on the turf, aboard 6-year-old gelding Biigon for breeder-owner Colebrook Farms and trainer Ashlee Brnjas.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track conducts racing on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through April, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, 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.