by Mike Henry

Promising 2-year-olds, some whose connections have designs on tackling bigger challenges in 2022, will step into the spotlight on Saturday, Dec. 4 when Tampa Bay Downs launches its stakes schedule with a pair of $100,000, 6-furlong sprints.

The 36th running of the Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds and the 44th edition of the Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies begin a progression of Oldsmar stakes races that could lead the best of the bunch to a date with equine destiny in more lucrative engagements as 3-year-olds next year (for record-keeping purposes, all Thoroughbreds are considered to age a year on Jan. 1).

The Inaugural has drawn 28 nominations, while the Sandpiper has attracted 33 nominations. The Inaugural, for colts and geldings, is designed as a precursor to the $125,000, 7-furlong Pasco Stakes on Jan. 15. The next steps for the most talented of the males include the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on Feb. 12 and the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 12.

Both the Sam F. Davis and the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby are “Road to the Kentucky Derby” races, awarding points to the first four finishers toward qualifying for a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs in the Run for the Roses on May 7.

Gerry Stanislawzyk, the Tampa Bay Downs Stakes Coordinator, said possible Inaugural starters include the gelding Captain Cajun, who broke his maiden on Oct. 3 at Gulfstream Park. The son of Cajun Breeze is trained by Michael Yates, who won last year’s Inaugural with Poppy’s Pride.

Other Inaugural possible include gelding Concrete Glory, whose three career victories for trainer Gerald Brooks have come at different tracks; Little Vic, a maiden winner at Gulfstream from the barn of trainer Juan Carlos Avila; Viva Victory, a winner on turf at Monmouth Park in his only start for owner-trainer Arnoud Dobber; and Whistlewhileyoumow, who broke his maiden earlier this month at Hawthorne for trainer Jon Arnett.

The next step after the Sandpiper for the fillies is the $125,000, 7-furlong Gasparilla Stakes on Jan. 15. Those showing sufficient talent and desire could then advance to the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes, a mile-and-40-yard contest on Feb. 12.

The Suncoast is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” race, awarding points to the first four finishers toward earning a spot in the May 6 Kentucky Oaks.

Sandpiper possibles, according to Stanislawzyk, include Last Leaf, whose three victories from six starts for trainer Ron Spatz include a score in the Hollywood Beach Stakes on the turf on Sept. 25 at Gulfstream.

Other possible entrants include Strategic Bird, who broke her maiden by 12 ¾ lengths in her career debut on Nov. 13 at Gulfstream for trainer Mark Casse; Chasing Happiness, a David Fawkes-trainee who broke her maiden at Gulfstream earlier this month by 6 ½ lengths; and She’s My Warrior, who won the Northern Lights Debutant Stakes in September at Canterbury Park for trainer Tim Padilla.

The Inaugural and the Sandpiper are part of what is certain to be a December to remember as action at Tampa Bay Downs heats up approaching the holiday season.

Around the oval. With three victories and two seconds from six starters this week, Eoin Harty is off to the kind of start trainers dream about. Harty won three races today, including an impressive score by 2-year-old colt Boitano in the first race, a $31,500 maiden special weight contest.


Eoin Harty

Boitano, a Godolphin-bred-and-owned son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, won in virtual gate-to-wire fashion by a length-and-a-quarter from 6-5 favorite Tap the Gavel, a son of Tapit making his first start. Tap the Gavel is owned by members of the increasingly popular MyRacehorse syndicate.

Ridden by Jesus Castanon, Boitano completed the mile-and-40-yard distance in a solid time of 1:40.84 while staving off Tap the Gavel through the stretch. Harty’s other entrant in the race, Royal Court, finished fourth.

Harty’s other victories came on the turf. He won the fourth race with Clemson Tiger, a 3-year-old colt owned by Pat Greco and Michael P. Cloonan and ridden by Rocco Bowen.

Harty added the sixth race via disqualification when his 2-year-old filly Miss Z was elevated from second after first-time starter Strong Embrace was taken down by the stewards for interference in the stretch. Miss Z, who rallied from last in the 1-mile contest, is a homebred racing for owner Calumet Farm and was ridden by Oldsmar newcomer Bowen.

Jose Ferrer also rode two winners. He scored in the second race on 4-year-old gelding Indy Ride for owner-trainer Maria Bowersock and added the eighth race on the turf with Why Not Tonight, a 3-year-old filly owned by Wasabi Ventures Stables and trained by Jesus Cruz.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs continues Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs currently races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule, with a special Thursday, Dec. 23 card and Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 26.

Tampa Bay Downs is closed on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and Easter Sunday, April 17. 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.

10 Days of Festivus Challenge set to begin. Handicappers have a chance to test their skills against the best of the best in the track’s annual “10 Days of Festivus Challenge,” an online handicapping contest that runs from Saturday, Dec. 4 through Dec. 24. There is no cost to enter.

The contest is a lot of fun and offers handicappers of all experience levels the chance to vie for a first-place prize of $1,000. Each player begins the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” with a free lifeline, and players who get off to a slow start may purchase additional lifelines as the contest moves forward.

Participants must register by 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the contest. All wagers are mythical, and players select one horse in one of each day’s “Challenge Races,” with results determined from a $2 mythical win-place-show wager on their pick.

A full set of rules is available on the contest website, which can be accessed at (click Festivus Challenge on the home page, then click “Create an account” near the top right of the contest page).

The contest focus is on picking winners, so it is likely to produce several “diamond-in-the-rough” contenders who know how to map out a race and factor in all the variables that make handicapping such a fun and challenging endeavor.