by Mike Henry

Close observers of the national 3-year-old Thoroughbred scene expected the second race on Jan. 7 at Tampa Bay Downs, an allowance/optional claiming event, to be a walk in the park – but not for the eventual winner, Golden Glider.

Emmanuel, trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt who is on a lot of experts’ “Kentucky Derby Watch” lists, was a late scratch from the Jan. 7 contest after spiking a fever. Emmanuel made his first 2022 start on Jan. 30 at the Oldsmar oval, rolling to a 4 ½-length victory.

“I was a little disappointed (Emmanuel) didn’t run (on Jan. 7), because I wanted to see where Golden Glider was at,” said trainer Mark Casse, who has entered Golden Glider and two other horses in Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track. “This is the time of year when you’re trying to figure out where your horse fits, and running against those kind of horses gives you a better feel.”

Even without Emmanuel – who could return here for the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 – Golden Glider and Casse’s two other Sam F. Davis entries, God of Love and Volcanic, will face stern tests in a 12-horse field that includes morning-line favorite and Grade I-placed Classic Causeway; unbeaten (3-for-3) Florida-bred multiple stakes-winner Make It Big; two-time New York stakes winner Shipsational; and Strike Hard, second in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes on Jan. 1 at Gulfstream.

Howling Man was scratched earlier today to pinpoint a later assignment, enabling No. 13 Little Vic to draw into the field from the also-eligible list.

“This is one of the most competitive Sam F. Davis fields I can remember,” said Casse, the U.S. and Canadian Hall of Famer who won the race in 2018 with stakes-record holder Flameaway.

The Sam F. Davis, a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race, will be the 10th race on an 11-race card beginning at 12:11 p.m. It is one of four stakes on the Festival Preview Day card.

The others are the $150,000, mile-and-40-yard Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race, which is the eighth race; the $100,000, 6-furlong Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward, which is the seventh; and the $50,000, 6-furlong Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares 4-and-upward, which is the sixth.

A number of outstanding jockeys are making the trip to Oldsmar to compete, including Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano; Irad Ortiz, Jr., who will be on Classic Causeway, and his brother Jose Ortiz; riding Make It Big; Manuel Franco; and Paco Lopez.

Although each of Casse’s horses sport odds of 10-1 or higher, he believes all have the potential to be competitive. “It would not shock me if any of the three win,” the conditioner said.

Golden Glider, who is 2-for-2 for Casse and owner Conrad Farms, will look to repeat his Jan. 7 performance under jockey Antonio Gallardo while breaking from the No. 4 post. “He got away a little slow that day, made a big, wide move and pulled himself up when he made the lead, so there is room for improvement,” Casse said.

God of Love, a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canada’s 2021 Champion Two-Year-Old Male, is owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gary Barber. He starts from the No. 5 post. God of Love was supplemented to the Sam F. Davis at a cost of $3,000 after not being originally nominated. Canadian star Rafael Manuel Hernandez is the jockey.

He won the Grade III Grey Stakes on Nov. 28 on the all-weather track at Woodbine with a strong come-from-behind effort. Casse had planned to run him in last week’s Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, but weather concerns caused Casse to keep him at his Casse Training Center in Ocala, where he breezed 4 furlongs Saturday in 49 4/5 seconds.

Previous to that, Casse had trained him at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla. “We trained him alongside Sir Winston (Casse’s 2019 Belmont Stakes winner) and he worked extremely well,” said Casse, who believes God of Love’s style should be beneficial in a race with a lot of early speed.  

Volcanic, owned by Breeze Easy, LLC and scheduled to be ridden by Edwin Gonzalez, will break from the No. 9 post (after the scratch of Howling Time). Volcanic broke his maiden on Jan. 8 going 1 mile at Gulfstream to earn the start. “I like his post – he’ll have a forward position, but will not have to be absolutely on the lead,” Casse said.

“This is a horse I’ve been high on right along. I don’t usually start maidens in the (Grade I) Hopeful (Sept. 6 at Saratoga),” Casse said. “He drew the No. 1 post (in an 11-horse field), which never helps, and he hit the side of the gate coming away and lost all chance (finishing seventh).”

So many questions, and as Casse can tell you, a lot of answers perhaps forthcoming in about 1:42.44, which was Flameaway’s Sam F. Davis time four years ago.

Shipsational primed for big effort. After Shipsational won the Bertram F. Bongard Stakes and the Sleepy Hollow Stakes for New York-breds last fall at Belmont Park, his connections figured they might have a Kentucky Derby prospect.

Instead of giving him another race as a 2-year-old, trainer Eddie Barker sent the son of Midshipman-Regal Approach, by Thunder Gulch, to Tampa Bay Downs to train up to the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Six workouts later – including a 4-furlong breeze Sunday in 48 2/5 seconds, preceded by sharp 6 and 5-furlong works – Barker thinks Shipsational is sitting on a big race.

He will break from the No. 8 post under Javier Castellano. Shipsational is owned by Iris Smith Stable LLC.

“This type of horse doesn’t come along very often for a trainer of my size,” said Barker, who has five horses at Tampa Bay Downs and 12 in New York. “So, we’re going to take our best shot. He has a great mind and a lot of natural ability, and right now everything is clicking really well.”

Shipsational has been ridden in his workouts by assistant trainer Joe Falcone, who has worked with Barker for more than 25 years. Castellano will be aboard in the Sam F. Davis.

“It’s a big step up for this horse, and there are always a lot of questions – can he get the distance, how will he handle two turns, how will he compete against open graded-stakes horses,” Barker said. “So far, everything we’ve asked him to do, he does it and walks off the track like he didn’t do anything.”

Shipsational has been ridden by Luis Saez in his four career starts. “(Castellano) is a world-class rider, and he’ll know exactly what to do,” Barker said.

Florida-bred bonuses enhance Festival Preview Day stakes. Eight registered Florida-bred horses are in line for substantial bonus money should they win the Sam F. Davis Stakes, the Suncoast or the Pelican. The bonuses are provided through a partnership with the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.

In the Sam F. Davis, the connections of Florida-bred colts Mr Rum Runner (by Uncaptured) and Make It Big (by Neolithic) would collect a $50,000 bonus should their horses win, in addition to the $120,000 first-place money available to all 12 horses.

Florida-bred filly Alittleloveandluck (by Arrogate) would earn a $50,000 FTBOA bonus with a Suncoast victory, in addition to $60,000 first-place money.

There are five Florida-bred horses competing for a $25,000 “win-only” bonus in the Pelican: R Mercedes Boy (by Overdriven); Baby Yoda (by Prospective); Pudding (by Two Step Salsa); Cajun Casanova (by Cajun Breeze); and Boca Boy (by Prospective).

Diaz is Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month. Competition is the lifeblood of Thoroughbred racing. For jockeys, that involves having their preparation, skill, timing and ability to finish strong put to the test on a race-to-race basis.

Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., thrives on the challenge. The return of Tampa Bay Downs favorites Pablo Morales and Fernando De La Cruz to the Oldsmar colony this season, as well as the addition of polished journeymen such as Rocco Bowen and John Bisono, provides more fuel to Diaz’s quest to prove himself.


Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr.

“The competition is stronger this year, and I’m happy with that,” Diaz says. “It gives me a lot of motivation. You can’t relax. You have to put forth 100-percent effort every day.

“It’s a lot more intense, and a lot of different guys are winning races. It’s good for the game and good for the public.”

Diaz knows he has to impress with each opportunity to build his business. He performed that task to perfection in Saturday’s Grade III, $175,000 Endeavour Stakes on the turf with 4-year-old filly Bleecker Street, rewarding the San Juan, Puerto Rico product with his first graded-stakes victory.

The upset triumph over 9-10 favorite Lady Speightspeare enabled Diaz to win the Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month Award.

Bleecker Street, who improved to 4-for-4, is owned by Peter M. Brant and trained by Chad Brown, two of racing’s power players. Diaz earned the assignment for the Endeavour by riding her to victory in her first three career starts on different tracks, including an allowance/optional claiming score here on Jan. 8.

“When you get to ride horses for trainers like Chad Brown, (Christophe) Clement and (H. Graham) Motion, it gives you extra confidence, because you know they are going to do what they think is best for their horses,” Diaz says.

“Winning a graded stakes puts you in a different category, but I didn’t even think about that before the race. My approach was the same. The entire trip was perfect – we saved ground, I didn’t have to check and when we got the room to go, she gave by far her best effort yet. She gave me a turn of foot that I had never seen from her before, and she was flying at the end.”

Currently fifth in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 22 winners, Diaz – who plans to return to Monmouth Park in the spring – exudes a high degree of professionalism in his dealings with fellow jockeys, horsemen and the media.

“A lot of trainers compliment him for coming to the paddock prepared and being able to discuss the game plan before a race,” said his agent, Shawn Klotz. “And he’s able to give them quality feedback afterward – suggesting a horse needs blinkers, or taking a horse off the pace next time instead of being on the lead. He’s a good communicator, and a lot of people like that about him.

“Hector eats, breathes and sleeps riding horses. He is very passionate about his job.”

Diaz – who says “There is nothing I don’t love about this game” – can’t wait for his next try at graded success.

“You have to sacrifice a lot in this job, but it’s easy when you love what you’re doing,” he says. “And it’s real easy when you get along with a horse like (Bleecker Street). When you feel that bond and know what you’re going to get, you ride with a lot of confidence.”

Around the oval. One way or another, it seems, the trainer-jockey combination of Anthony Granitz and Fernando De La Cruz is gonna getcha. They won the second race with 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Tripulante after Cyberviking, the first horse across the wire, was disqualified for bumping Tripulante in deep stretch.

Through today’s action, the combo of Granitz and De La Cruz has won 10 times from 20 starts, with four seconds and three thirds. Granitz is also the owner of Tripulante.

Rocco Bowen rode three winners today, two for trainer Kathleen O’Connell. Bowen captured the first race on 12-1 shot Vigo, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Volar Corporation and trained by O’Connell. Bowen added the sixth with Oil Money, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Danny Stafford and trained by Jon Arnett.

In the seventh race, on the turf, Bowen and O’Connell teamed for a triumph with Katies a Lady, a 3-year-old filly owned by Terry E. Davie.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, the Oldsmar oval 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.

“Live It Up Challenge” starts Saturday. The “Live It Up Challenge” Handicapping Contest begins Saturday, with a rules change designed to place even more emphasis on handicapping skill.

The free-to-enter online competition will require players to select a horse in two of each day’s three “Challenge Races,” which will be selected by contest officials. In previous years, players selected a horse in one of two designated “Challenge Races.”

All wagers are mythical. Scores, or bankrolls, will be determined on the basis of $2 mythical win-place-show wagers on each participant’s selections. Any race when a player’s choice finishes off-the-board, or the player does not make a selection for any reason, results in the loss of a ‘lifeline.” Players losing all their lifelines are eliminated from further participation, although they are still eligible for the $500 bonus prize for overall most winners.

All entrants begin the contest with one free lifeline. Players may purchase eight additional lifelines for $5 each upon signup, eight more on Feb. 25 for $10 each and four more on March 11 for $25 each.

The contest runs through March 27, which is Florida Cup Day, enhancing the potential for a dramatic finish. Players must register by 9:30 a.m. on Saturday. To do so, go to on the Internet.

The first-place winner will receive two seats for the 2023 High Rollers Handicapping Contest at Tampa Bay Downs next January (a $2,000 value). The second-through-fourth-place finishers will receive one seat apiece, a $1,000 equivalency.

The player selecting the most winners throughout the contest’s duration, as mentioned, receives $500.

For additional details, contact Margo Flynn, the track’s Vice President of Marketing & Publicity, at (813) 855-4401, extension 1368.