by Mike Henry

A week after one of the biggest days in track history (the biggest, if wagering handle is the measuring stick), Tampa Bay Downs has begun the countdown to its May 7 Kentucky Derby celebration, in hopes one of its “graduates” can join Street Sense, Super Saver and Always Dreaming in the pantheon of Derby winners to compete here.

First things first, though, before Sam F. Davis Stakes and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway and a few other Oldsmar visitors enter the gate at Churchill Downs. Next Sunday, March 27, registered Florida-breds compete for $660,000 in stakes purse money in the 19th annual Florida Cup.

Anyone who has been a fan of the Oldsmar oval for more than a few years owns a bucketful of Florida Cup memories, and for some, It’s Me Mom’s scintillating victory in the 2012 Sprint remains the top thrill of all. The 4-year-old homebred filly defeated a field of six males, speeding home in a still-standing, track-record time of 1:08.67 for the 6-furlong distance under jockey Jorge Vargas.

A number of horses have used victories in the Florida Cup to go on to more prestigious achievements, including World Approval, victorious in both the 2015 Sophomore Turf and the 2017 Turf Classic; Imperial Hint, winner of both the 2016 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore and the 2018 Sprint; and Catalina Red, who won the 2016 Sprint.

This year’s Florida Cup menu consists of three races apiece on both the main dirt track and the turf course, with three races for 3-year-olds, two for horses 4-years-old-and-upward and one for fillies and mares 3-and-upward. Entries will be drawn Thursday in the Tampa Bay Downs Racing Office.

The Florida Cup races are as follows (each offers $110,000 in purse money):

  • Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore, 3-year-olds, 7 furlongs, main track
  • Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, 3 –year-old fillies, 7 furlongs, main track
  • Equistaff Sophomore Turf, 3-year-olds, 1 1/16-mile, turf course
  • Grey Goose Turf Classic, 4-year-olds-and-upward, 1 1/8-mile, turf course
  • Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf, fillies and mares 3-and-upward, 1 1/16-mile, turf course
  • NYRABETS Sprint, 4-and-upward, 6 furlongs, main track

With the meeting two-thirds complete and spring beginning Sunday, defending jockey champion Samy Camacho and seven-time leading trainer Gerald Bennett (the last six in a row) have comfortable, if not secure, leads in the standings. Camacho has ridden 69 winners, 13 more than Pablo Morales. It’s a considerable falloff to third-place Fernando De La Cruz, with 43 winners.

Bennett has sent out 26 winners, six ahead of Juan Arriagada. Kathleen O’Connell has 19 and Rafael Schistl and Chad Brown are tied with 17.

Arriagada is the leading owner with 18 winners, followed by Endsley Oaks Farm with 14 and Winner Circle Stables with 13.

Around the oval. Madeline “Maddie” Rowland, a virtual lock for leading apprentice honors with 14 victories, rode back-to-back winners today. She captured the second race on I Kickn, a 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned and trained by Tedston Holder. I Kickn was claimed from the race for $5,000 by trainer Gary House for new owner Debra M. Smith.

Rowland added the third race aboard Valiant Virtue, a 5-year-old gelding owned and trained by Arriagada.

Samy Camacho and Isaac Castillo also rode two winners. Camacho won the first race on Pushingupdaisies, a 5-year-old mare owned by Knockanally, LLC and trained by John E. Shaw. Camacho won the 10th and final race on the turf aboard first-time starter Psychedelic Shack, a 4-year-old colt owned by MyRacehorse and trained by Christophe Clement.

Castillo scored in the sixth race, the Lambholm South Race of the Week for 3-year-old maidens on the turf, with Azure Sky, a gelding owned by Alejandro Mendieta and Diamond Hands Racing and trained by Bobby Raymond. Castillo added the ninth race on Hard Ten, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Elena Racing and trained by Jorge Delgado.

Thoroughbred racing continues Sunday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:15 p.m. The feature event is the fifth race, a $31,500 allowance/optional claiming race at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward. The 8-5 morning-line favorite is 4-year-old filly Ingrassia, from the barn of trainer Chad Brown and to be ridden by Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through May 7, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed, and May 1, when the Thoroughbred action is limited to simulcasting.

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.

“Kids & Family Day” is Sunday. An additional “Kids & Family Day” celebration will be held in the Backyard Picnic Area during Sunday’s card. Admission is free.

The event gives newcomers to racing a low-key introduction to the sport, while providing plenty of fun for the youngsters, including bounce houses, carnival games and fun food items provided by Coach Carlson’s “Field of Dreams.” Attendees will have an opportunity to meet track mascot Mouse the Miniature Horse.

Patrons are allowed to pack their own lunches for a full day of entertainment and racing.

Post time for Sunday’s first race is 12:15 p.m.