by Mike Henry

Darien Rodriguez shrugged when asked to explain his success (3-for-5, with a second) in this season’s Tampa Turf Test starter handicap series.

“Good horses, I guess,” the trainer said after Wicked Groove’s gutsy, ¾-length victory from Pugilist in the Fillies and Mares Division on today’s Tampa Bay Downs card.

Luis Carvajal, Jr., knows about basking in the reflection cast by good horses. He trained Florida-bred Imperial Hint, who won four Grade I stakes in 2018 and 2019 and finished his career with $2.2-million in earnings.

Carvajal’s 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding El Pillo, who may be finding his best stride, won the Males Division of the Tampa Turf Test under jockey Jose Batista, edging And Won by a half-length, with Motataabeq a head back in third.

While Rodriguez is comfortable downplaying his own contributions, his description of Wicked Groove is accurate. Since Rodriguez claimed the 4-year-old for $16,000 from a victory last September at Monmouth Park, Wicked Groove is 3-for-6 with two seconds, as well as a fourth in a high-level handicap last month on the synthetic all-weather Tapeta surface at Gulfstream.

“She’s easy to ride. She’s won on the turf, she’s won on (synthetic),” said jockey Antonio Gallardo. “You can put her wherever you want, and she tries hard all the time. I like that.”

“She hooked some tough horses in that race at Gulfstream,” said Rodriguez, who owns Wicked Groove under his Sabal Racing Stable banner in partnership with Acclaimed Racing Stable and Patrick Rhodes. “Antonio gave her a good ride. She is very easy to handle, not rank at all.”

Wicked Groove’s time for the mile-and-an-eighth distance on the grass course was 1:48.71. Lady Dominance finished third in the 10-horse field, three-quarters of a length behind Pugilist. Wicked Groove paid $5 to win as the betting favorite.

Meanwhile, Carvajal had to laugh at the way events in racing often seem to come full circle. Brothers David and Randy Ritter, who own El Pillo (which translates to “The Rascal”) in partnership with Kristen Somerville, employed Carvajal as a jockey in New Jersey years before he took out his trainer’s license in 2006.

El Pillo’s time was 1:49.06. He paid $25.40 to win.

Rodriguez won both legs of the first round of the Tampa Turf Test at a distance of a mile on Jan. 1, with Dazzling Truths and 7-year-old mare Vip Nation. Dazzling Truths finished second by a head to And Won in the second round going a mile-and-a-sixteenth on Jan. 22 (there was no Fillies and Mares Division that day) and was fourth today.

The final round of the Tampa Turf Test, a starter handicap series for horses 4-years-old-and-upward which have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less in 2021-22, is March 26, with both divisions scheduled at a distance of a mile-and-three-eighths.

Around the oval. Pablo Morales and Samy Camacho each rode two winners today. Morales won the first race on Sing Along Suzy, a 5-year-old mare owned by Rodney M. Miller and trained by Jon Arnett. He added the sixth, the Lambholm South Race of the Week on the turf, aboard Midnight Stroll, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Gatsas Stables, R. A. Hill Stable and Steven Schoenfeld and trained by John P. Terranova, II.

Camacho won the fourth race with Sassy Beast, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Frank Carl Calabrese and trained by Angel M. Rodriguez. He also captured the fifth on the turf aboard Copacetic, a 4-year-old filly owned by e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and trained by Chad Brown.

Brown, Camacho and owner Peter M. Brant will team on the two morning-line favorites in Sunday’s co-feature races. The nine-race card begins at 12:13 p.m.

In the fifth race, a $31,500 allowance/optional claiming event for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf, Brown will send out 6-year-old gelding Flop Shot, an Irish-bred who won the Group III Prix de Guiche at Chantilly in France as a 3-year-old. Seven rivals will challenge Flop Shot.

In the seventh, a $31,000 allowance for horses 4-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass, Brown and Camacho will seek victory with 5-year-old Great Britain-bred gelding St. Joe Louis. Nine horses are entered.

Despite racing only 28 horses at the meet, Brown is in position to make a run at the Oldsmar training title, if everything breaks his way. He has 13 victories – eight behind leader Gerald Bennett – after Copacetic’s maiden victory.

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.

“Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament upcoming. The 30th annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, which raises funds for Tampa Bay Downs backside workers, will be played Monday, March 7 beginning at noon at Eagles Golf Club in Odessa.

The tournament format is a 4-person scramble. The entry fee is $110 a player, which includes range balls, on-course contests, a boxed lunch, on-course beverages and a goody bag.

Sponsorships and donations are encouraged. “The “Triple Crown” Golf Sponsorship, which covers foursome golf packages, a recognition sign and company or individual name on every hole sign, costs $2,500. Individual hole sponsorships are available for $125.

Suitable donations include gift certificates, retail gift cards, golf-themed and racing-themed baskets, etc. Monetary donations may be mailed to RTCA/Tampa Bay Downs, Post Office Box 2211, Oldsmar, Fla., with a check payable to Race Track Chaplaincy of America.

Backside workers are the lifeblood of every Thoroughbred racetrack, and the “Hearts Reaching Out” event helps to meet the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of these unsung participants. For details or to enter, call Chaplain Pete Crisswell at (304) 433-6808 or Dr. Bill Owens at (813) 240-1340.