by Mike Henry

After Strategic Bird won her career debut on Nov. 13 at Gulfstream Park by 12 ¾ lengths, it was fair to ask how she might handle a challenge in today’s $100,000-guaranteed Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

The Florida-bred juvenile filly answered the question in resounding fashion, turning back Devine Charger by a neck after a stretch-long duel to win the fourth-fastest Sandpiper in its 44 runnings.

“That was something incredible,” said winning jockey Antonio Gallardo after the daughter of Noble Bird-Strategize, by Afleet Alex, held firm to the wire, completing the 6-furlong distance in 1:10.05. “At one point I was like, ‘Oh, ----.’ I was getting a little worried because she felt the pressure from that gray horse, but she’s a feisty filly.”


No. 1 Strategic Bird, Antonio Gallardo up, is game to the wire in the Sandpiper Stakes (courtesy SV Photography)

In today’s other stakes, the 36th edition of the $100,000-guaranteed Inaugural for males, Florida-bred 2-year colt Cattin moved smartly to the lead on the turn for home under jockey Samy Camacho and continued like he’d appreciate more distance, winning by 2 ½ lengths from another Florida-bred, Lightening Larry.

Cattin’s time for the 6 furlongs was 1:10.90. The victory lifted the spirits of Gulfstream Park-based trainer Ralph Nicks, whose father, long-time trainer Morris Nicks, died on Nov. 25 at 74 after a prolonged fight against cancer.

The Sandpiper and the Inaugural were part of the Oldsmar oval’s annual Cotillion Festival Day card, consisting entirely of races for 2-year-olds turning 3 on Jan. 1.

Owned by Gary Barber and trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, Strategic Bird paid $4.00 to win after many of her backers nearly lost control rooting for her to hang on. “I had a couple of people with me who said ‘This race is over,’ ” said Casse assistant Jimmy Miranda of Devine Charger’s challenge, “but I said ‘No, not yet.’

“She laid down some good fractions (21.93 seconds for the quarter-mile and 44.91 for the half) and won, so we’re really happy with the result. When you get one who wins first time out like she did, you just want to see if they’ll take the next step, and she handled everything well today. She’s a good-minded filly.”

Chasing Happiness finished third in the 10-horse field, 7 lengths behind Devine Charger.

Although Strategic Bird broke a step slow from the No. 1 post, Gallardo was unconcerned, and for good reason. She moved quickly to the lead on her own, giving the rider a chance to give her a breather on the far turn, which doubtless contributed to the victory.

“I tried not to rush her too much because I knew she has a lot of natural speed,” Gallardo said. “She broke a little slow and still set those fractions like it was nothing. Having the No. 1 post was perfect, and after I gave her a chance to relax, she dug in and never quit.”

Bred by the John Oxley Living Trust, Strategic Bird collected $30,000 from the total purse since she was not Florida Sire Stakes-eligible, a requirement to compete for the $50,000 winner’s-only bonus.

In the Inaugural, Camacho had close to a dream trip after breaking from the No. 4 post on Cattin, who improved to 2-for-4. “I think I got the perfect trip, because two horses (Magical Mousse, the fourth-place finisher, and Full Disclosure) were fighting on the lead and I was able to sit fourth or fifth early,” said Camacho, who also won the third race on the Florida-bred gelding Morgan Point for breeder-owner Robert C. Roffey, Jr., and trainer Chad Stewart.


Cattin, with Samy Camacho aboard, provides trainer Ralph Nicks with a restorative Inaugural Stakes triumph (courtesy SV Photography)

“I got a chance to go inside (Lightening Larry) and when I put my horse in the clear, I thought the race was over. I feel great because Ralph Nicks gave me this great opportunity, and I want to keep it going.”

Camacho also won last year’s Inaugural with Poppy’s Pride. Grand Valley finished a non-threatening third.

Cattin, who is owned by Corinne Heiligbrodt, William Heiligbrodt and Spendthrift Farm, was bred by Curtis Mikkelsen and Patricia Horth. The son of Neolithic-Adios Dawn, by Adios Charlie, fulfilled all the eligibility requirements, thus collected $80,000 from the purse.

He paid $11.40 to win.

Ralph Nicks’s assistant, Sonny Righter, said hopes were high entering the Inaugural after Cattin finished a solid third in his most recent start, the mile-and-a-sixteenth Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Florida Sire In Reality Stakes on Sept. 25 at Gulfstream.

“I thought he would run good today,” Righter said. “I was worried he might get shuffled back early, but Samy got him back in the race pretty quick and he caught a good trip after that. He was feeling good going into the race and he ran huge.”

Around the oval. The colt Grumley broke his maiden in the 10th race on the turf, rewarding trainer Gerald Bennett with career victory No. 3,998. Grumley, who is owned by Diversified Pedigree Acquisitions, was ridden by Fernando De La Cruz.

Pablo Morales rode two winners today. He won the fifth race aboard Platinum Gem, a filly owned by Classic Run Farm and trained by Maria Bowersock. Morales added the eighth race on the turf, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, aboard Amazon Queen, a filly owned by Greg Tatum Racing and trained by Arnaud Delacour.

Thoroughbred racing continues Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:20 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.