by Mike Henry

An increase of $150,000 in purse money and a switch to Sunday are among the changes for the 15th annual Florida Cup, which will be held on April 2 at Tampa Bay Downs.

What hasn’t changed is the overall quality of the nominations for the series of six stakes races, each of which features registered Florida-bred horses running for purse money of $100,000, a 33.3 percent increase from 2016.

The names of 122 nominees were released today by the Racing Office for the Florida Cup, which includes three main-track races and three turf races. The dirt races include the Hilton Garden Inn Sprint, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going six furlongs; the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore, for 3-year-olds at a distance of seven furlongs; and the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, for 3-year-old fillies traveling seven furlongs.

Florida Cup grass races include the 14 Hands Winery Sophomore Turf, for 3-year-olds going a mile-and-a-sixteenth; the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, for fillies and mares 3-years-old-and-upward at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth; and the EG Vodka Turf Classic, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward going a mile-and-an-eighth.

14 Hands Winery and EG Vodka are first-year Florida Cup sponsors.

Mark Casse, an eight-time Sovereign award winner as the leading trainer in Canada and a member of that nation’s Horse Racing Hall of Fame, has two Grade I winners among his five nominees.

Those standouts are Grade I-winning 5-year-old gelding World Approval, a candidate for the EG Vodka Turf Classic who won the Sophomore Turf here in 2015, and Grade I-winning 3-year-old filly Victory to Victory, nominated to both the 14 Hands Winery Sophomore Turf and the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore. Both horses are owned by Live Oak Plantation.

Two-time past Tampa Bay Downs leading trainer Kathleen O’Connell has nominated a Florida Cup-high eight horses, including four to the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies. That group includes the Stonehedge, LLC-owned Karen Sue, an impressive maiden winner here on Feb. 25. O’Connell is a long-time trainer for Stonehedge and its owner, top Florida horseman Gilbert G. Campbell.

O’Connell’s nominees also include 6-year-old Early Entry, who won the Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream in January and is nominated to the Hilton Garden Inn Sprint. Early Entry is owned by Tommy Roberts Racing Stable.

Current leading Oldsmar conditioner Gerald Bennett, also a two-time track champion who has saddled more than 3,600 career winners, nominated seven horses. His contingent of candidates includes 3-year-old filly R Angel Katelyn, a two-time stakes winner at the current Oldsmar meeting, for the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies. She is owned by Averill Racing, CCF Racing Stable and K Lauren Racing.

Bennett has nominated three horses to the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, including the stakes-winning 5-year-old mare Royal Jewely, who is owned by Michael Reynolds and Anthony J. Piarulli.

Other top Florida Cup nominees include the 2015 Grade III Florida Oaks-winning 5-year-old mare Quality Rocks, trained by National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame member William Mott, to the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf; multiple stakes-winning 3-year-old filly Cajun Delta Dawn, trained by David Fawkes, to the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies; and Grade II-winning 7-year-old gelding Delta Bluesman, conditioned by Jorge Navarro, to the Hilton Garden Inn Sprint.

Also, Grade III-winning 6-year-old gelding Enterprising, from the barn of Michael Maker, to the EG Vodka Turf Classic; Grade III winner and 2015 Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf winner Evidently, a 6-year-old mare trained by Roy Lerman, to that event; and recent Pelican Stakes winner Tiger Blood, a 4-year-old colt trained by Darien Rodriguez, to the Hilton Garden Inn Sprint.

“We are appreciative of the support from our local horsemen and all the breeders, owners and trainers who have helped to make Florida Cup Day an ongoing success,” said track Vice President of Marketing and Publicity Margo Flynn. “We believe the series is an exceptional way to highlight the outstanding Florida breeding and racing programs that for decades have produced horses capable of competing and winning on a national and world stage.”

After being held on a Sunday in 2003 and 2004, the Florida Cup was moved to Saturday from 2005-2016. With both the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream and the Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds scheduled on Saturday, April 1, and three Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prep races the following Saturday, Tampa Bay Downs officials moved this year’s Florida Cup to a Sunday for heightened interest and visibility.

For a look at the entire list of Florida Cup Day nominees, click on

Around the oval. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno, Samy Camacho and Fernando De La Cruz each rode two winners today.

Centeno, who has 68 victories, won the first race on 8-year-old gelding Oxford Street for owner Doris Elicker and trainer Baltazar Galvan. He added the ninth and final race on the turf aboard 4-year-old gelding Thornton for owner Vince Campanella and trainer Keith Nations.

Camacho moved into eighth place in the standings with 24 victories, first capturing the second race aboard Formal, a 3-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Alejandro Mendieta and trained by Monte Thomas. The rider added the fourth race on 6-year-old horse Notional’s Wind for owner George Santis and trainer Kenneth Westlye.

De La Cruz, who is in fifth place, won the sixth race, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, on 3-year-old Florida-bred filly Ashleys Magens Bay for owner Betty L. Kaelin and trainer Forrest Kaelin. The rider earned his 41st victory of the meeting in the eighth race on Sheza Ruler, a 6-year-old mare owned by Anthony Granitz, Ron Venturini and Jeremiah Stables and trained by Granitz.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:55 p.m. The Oldsmar oval conducts racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout 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.