MINUS STARS, CASSE RELOADS; GONZALEZ WINS 6; BRNJAS TRAINER OF MONTH

by Mike Henry

A few weeks ago, hopes were high that trainer Mark Casse would arrive for Festival Day at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday with a pair of Eclipse Award champions set to compete.

Although those tentative plans fell by the wayside, Casse could be a major factor on Saturday’s Festival Day card. More on him shortly.

Today, the spotlight shone on jockey Edwin Gonzalez, who became the second jockey in track history to ride six winners on a single card. Gonzalez went 6-for-7, including a dead-heat victory, and was third on his other mount.

Richard DePass is the only jockey to win more at Tampa Bay Downs on a single day: He was 7-for-7 on March 15, 1980, the first jockey in racing history to achieve that feat.

More details on Gonzalez’s big day can be found in a separate press release and on the track website soon.

Back, for now, to Saturday’s festivities. After Casse’s two-time Eclipse Champion Grass Female, Tepin, experienced a case of colic that forced her withdrawal from an expected 2017 debut in the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes here on Feb. 11, a window of opportunity opened for her to compete in Saturday’s Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes.

Instead, Casse elected to give Tepin more time before starting her 6-year-old campaign, which he hopes will culminate with an appearance in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Del Mar in November.

Similarly, Casse’s 2016 Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Colt, Classic Empire, was a candidate to start in Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, an important race for Triple Crown hopefuls. But Casse decided to give him a few more weeks when a foot abscess was discovered following a disappointing third-place finish in the Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream, delaying his return until the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland.

So, what does an eight-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer and Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame member do when a pair of superstars become unavailable?

He reloads, sending a trio of performers to the Oldsmar oval and giving himself a puncher’s chance at visiting the winner’s circle.

In the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, Casse has entered Ontario-bred State of Honor, a 3-year-old colt who finished third here in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 11. Julien Leparoux will ride State of Honor, who is owned by Conrad Farms.

Casse has two entrants in the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf in La Coronel, owned by John C. Oxley, and Tamit, campaigned by Tepin’s owner, Robert E. Masterson.

Florent Geroux will ride La Coronel, while Leparoux has the assignment on Tamit.

Casse does not have a horse in the Hillsborough, leaving it to 10 older fillies and mares to contend for the trophy while challenging Tepin’s course-record time of 1:46.26 for the mile-and-an-eighth distance.

But the conditioner is in the middle of the action, as befits someone recently selected as a finalist on the 2017 National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame ballot. 

The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, the Hillsborough and the Florida Oaks are part of the richest card in track history, with total stakes-purse money of $925,000. Also on the card are the $100,000 Challenger Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf.

Post time for the first of 12 races is 12:12 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs will offer an all-stakes Pick-5 wager on races 7-through-11, culminating with the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

Casse – who won the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective – thinks State of Honor, who breaks from the No. 8 post, has a strong chance to turn the tables on the Todd Pletcher-trained Tapwrit, who finished second to unbeaten McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, while keeping his eight other rivals at bay.

“I thought his Davis race was probably better than it looked,” Casse said. “We decided we needed to try to take advantage of the inside post by getting him away from there quickly, and after he put Fact Finding away (through a half-mile in 47.15 seconds and six furlongs in 1:10.90), he was able to hang on late.

“That was only his second start on a dirt track,” added Casse, who campaigned State of Honor on Woodbine’s Tapeta synthetic track as a 2-year-old, with one race on turf. “He has trained better than ever for this race and seems to be thriving, so our feeling is he is going to improve off that effort.”

State of Honor is 1-for-8 lifetime with two seconds and two thirds. In his start before the Sam F. Davis, on Jan. 7, State of Honor finished second in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes by a head to Sonic Mule, one of two Pletcher-trained colts in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

La Coronel is the more accomplished of Casse’s Florida Oaks runners, her two victories including the JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 12. She was the betting favorite three weeks later in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and finished sixth, although she closed ground willingly late to get within three-and-a-quarter lengths of winner New Money Honey.

“She ran very wide the whole way (at Santa Anita) and really had no chance,” Casse said. “We looked at the replay and if the winner had to run as far as (La Coronel), it would have been a 10-length difference. Florent had to put her into a drive on the backside to have any chance, and she got a little tired. It was no fault of Florent’s, that’s just what happened.

“She has been training better than ever (at Casse Training Center in Ocala). It’s tough for any horse to be at their best off a four-month layoff, but I think she is very good right now and they’ll have to beat her.”

La Coronel breaks from the No. 5 post, while Tamit is in the No. 7 post.

Big-name trainers are well-represented in the Hillsborough. Chad Brown – who won the Hillsborough in 2012 with Zagora and in 2015 with Stephanie’s Kitten, both of whom went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in the fall – has entered 5-year-old mare Light In Paris and 4-year-old filly Elysea’s World.

Light In Paris was second to Hillsborough favorite Isabella Sings in the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour on Feb. 11 at Tampa Bay Downs, while Elysea’s World closed to be second to Dickinson in the Grade III Suwanee River Stakes that same day at Gulfstream Park.

Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno rides Light In Paris and Joel Rosario is named on Elysea’s World.

Kiaran McLaughlin is sending 5-year-old mare Dickinson for the Hillsborough. Other well-connected entries include 5-year-old Isabella Sings, conditioned by Pletcher; 4-year-old Swiss Range, trained by Hall of Fame trainer William Mott; 4-year-old My Impression, trained by Hall of Famer Claude “Shug” McGaughey, III; and Family Meeting, trained by Tom Proctor.   

Brnjas earns top honor. Ashlee Brnjas, whose father, John Burness, owns and operates Colebrook Farms in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada, has been selected as the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month.

After wintering in Ocala last year before heading home to compete at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto beginning in April, Brnjas and her father decided to send about 20 horses to Tampa Bay Downs this season.

The results have been outstanding, with seven victories and a 60-percent in-the-money rate from 40 starters. The majority of the Colebrook Farms horses here are homebreds.

“We saw an opportunity for our horses to race here and win,” said Brnjas, who began training in 2007. “The weather is a given, and I love the track surface. Once horses get fit to it, you have a lot of options.”

Brnjas benefits from the early work done at Colebrook, which provides such client services as training, boarding, foaling and breeding. Colebrook also stands 10 stallions, including recent addition Java’s War, a Grade I winner and 2013 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up.

Brnjas is high on her 5-year-old mare Reserved, a daughter of Kitten’s Joy who won an allowance/$32,000 optional claiming race here going a mile on the turf on Jan. 6 at odds of 20-1. Others, such as the 6-year-old geldings Azimut and Johnny Bear, know how to win; Azimut has won two races in a row, most recently in an allowance/$40,000 optional claiming race going six-and-a-half furlongs.

On the Oldsmar oval backside, Brnjas relies on a dedicated team of employees to keep the operation running smoothly. “I can make decisions all day long, but my crew members are the ones who point me in the right direction,” she said.

“It’s not all about me. My assistant, Chad Elder, is my lifeline, and my exercise riders, Niketo Griffiths and Charlton Riley, do an amazing job. We all work well together, and we want to do our best for each individual horse.”

Elder said the biggest question facing the operation this season was how Brnjas’ horses would adapt from the Tapeta synthetic surface at Woodbine in Toronto to the main dirt track at Tampa Bay Downs. “We gave them a good 30 days to prepare, and they’ve done really well on it,” Elder said.

“I think we’re bringing the right kind of horses down here, and they fit the company that they’re facing. John and Ashlee let them run where they belong and can be competitive, and then it’s just keeping them fit and happy,” Elder added.

Brnjas is married to an assistant film director, Jack Boem. Their 2011 marriage ceremony was performed in her arena at Colebrook Farms, and about a half-hour later, her 3-year-old filly Reconnect won the La Prevoyante Stakes at Woodbine at odds of 70-1. “We’ve got the best wedding photos ever,” Brnjas said.

These days, she’s focused on adding to her collection of winner’s-circle shots.

Around the oval. Edwin Gonzalez, as mentioned, continued his climb in the Oldsmar jockey standings, riding six winners to move into second place with 53 winners.

More information on Gonzalez’s huge day can be found in another press release and on the track website soon.

In the sixth race, Gonzalez and Oldstone Farmhouse dead-heated with Big Awesome, giving jockey Pedro Cotto, Jr.’s two victories on the day. The 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding is owned by Averill Racing and trained by Larry Rivelli.

Cotto also won the fourth race on 32-1 shot My Cape Cod, a 4-year-old filly owned by Leopoldo Ortega and trained by Michael A. Wells.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday basis throughout April, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, the track 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.