by Mike Henry

Helium, who scored his biggest career triumph in the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in 2021 to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve, heads a field of seven older horses in Friday’s eighth race at Tampa Bay Downs.

The $28,500 event is a conditional allowance/optional claiming race for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a distance of a mile-and-40-yards. Both Helium, a 5-year-old ridgling who is owned by D. J. Stable and trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Mark Casse, and 7-year-old gelding Bumperdoo, owned by Patrick Mogauro, Jr., and trained by John Rigattieri, are entered for a claiming price of $100,000.

Helium will be ridden by Jose Ferrer, who piloted the son of Ironicus-Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch to his Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory.

The field includes 2020 Queen’s Plate Stakes winner Mighty Heart, a 6-year-old Ontario-bred horse who has two graded-stakes victories north of the border and career earnings of more than $1.1-million. Daniel Centeno will ride Mighty Heart for trainer Patrick County, Jr.

Helium has finished second or third in four stakes races since his eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, including a third in the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes that May, but has not tasted victory in nine consecutive races since his Oldsmar tour de force. Back-to-back, last-place finishes in the Grade III Bold Venture Stakes last August at Woodbine and an allowance/optional claiming race in September at Churchill Downs mystified Casse, who says Helium has been training enthusiastically at his Casse Training Center in Ocala for Friday’s return, including a 4-furlong breeze in 47 3/5 seconds on Dec. 27.

“I’m not really sure what’s up with him,” Casse said this morning. “His last couple of races have been subpar and I’m trying to get him back into better form and thought this would be a good spot. He and I have not been on the same page, so we’re going back to where he had his greatest success with the rider who achieved it, and I expect him to run well.”

Multiple-stakes winner Prendimi, an 8-year-old gelding trained by Luis Carvajal, Jr., and the hard-knocking Bumperdoo also loom as legitimate threats.

Casse and D. J. Stable are the connections of (now)-3-year-old filly Wonder Wheel, the favorite to win the Eclipse Award as Champion 2-Year-Old Filly for 2022 after victories in the Grade I Darley Alcibiades Stakes and the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Today’s featured ninth race recognized long-time Tampa Bay Downs employee Nancy Kuzminksi, who is retiring from her position in the Accounting Department. First-time starter Lightress, a 3-year-old filly trained by Christophe Clement and ridden by Samy Camacho, defeated Sweet Track by slightly more than a length.

Camacho swept the late daily double, having won the eighth race on 11-year-old gelding Native Hawk for owner-trainer Juan Arriagada.

It seemed fitting for a first-time starter to win the ninth, considering all Kuzminski has done to assist new Tampa Bay Downs employees. Another chorus of Auld Lang Syne, maestro.

Friday’s nine-race card begins at 12:32 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.