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Published Jan 12, 2024
by Mike Henry
Gabriel Maldonado

OLDSMAR, FL. – Larry Demeritte brought his 3-year-old colt West Saratoga to Tampa Bay Downs early last week to escape the cold weather at his Thoroughbred Training Center base in Lexington, Ky.

That part of the plan hasn’t gone according to script, not with the abundance of rain and gray skies above the Oldsmar oval the first part of January. “I thought we were leaving Kentucky to get to the warmth,” said Demeritte, a product of The Bahamas.

But the trainer said West Saratoga – named after the street his owner, Harry Veruchi, lived on in Littleton, Colo. – has acclimated just fine to his new surroundings in preparation for Saturday’s $125,000, 7-furlong Pasco Stakes for 3-year-olds, one of three stakes on a 10-race card beginning at 12:34 p.m. The Pasco is the ninth race on the program.

“We missed some training with him because it rained so hard (last) Saturday, but I think he’s fit enough that it shouldn’t affect his performance,” Demeritte said. “He keeps maturing and getting better, and I’m very happy where we are with him at this stage of the game.”

West Saratoga, who is owned by Harry Veruchi, will break from the No. 1 post under leading Oldsmar jockey Samy Camacho in an expected six-horse field. The gray colt, who won the Grade III Iroquois Stakes on Sept. 16 at Churchill Downs, is at 9-5 odds on the morning line, behind two-time stakes winner Book’em Danno at 3-2.

Book’em Danno, who is owned by Atlantic Six Racing and trained by Derek Ryan, will break from the No. 3 post under jockey Samuel Marin. He breezed 3 furlongs here last Saturday in 36 seconds – at 6 a.m. before the heavy rain started, according to trainer Derek Ryan.

Saturday’s other stakes include the $125,000, 7-furlong Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, which is the seventh race, and the $50,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward, scheduled as the sixth race.

The Gasparilla has attracted eight fillies, with trainer Saffie A. Joseph, Jr.’s Mystic Lake the 6-5 morning-line favorite. She finished third in her most recent start, the Grade III Mazarine Stakes on Nov. 4 at Woodbine. Edgard Zayas will come up from Gulfstream to ride Mystic Lake, who has drawn the No. 1 post position.

Second choice at 3-1 is trainer Gregg Sacco’s Gorgeous Girl, who rallied to finish third on Dec. 20 in a 6 ½-furlong allowance against males despite being impeded at the start. Cmaacho has the riding assignment.

Florida-bred Girvin’s Princess will also get a long look from bettors. Although she has yet to face this quality of competition in her three career starts, the manner in which she overwhelmed her competition in her two victories seems to make her a solid contender.

Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., will ride Girvin’s Princess for trainer Kathleen O’Connell.

In the Wayward Lass, 4-year-old filly Opus Forty Two, trained by Arnaud Delacour, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite against five opponents. She will break from the No. 1 post. Daniel Centeno is her jockey. Opus Forty Two won last year’s Gasparilla Stakes as a 3-year-old, and she finished second in the Grade III Delaware Oaks on July 1.

“We think she can be very efficient as a two-turn horse,” Delacour said. “She had a good breeze Tuesday (4 furlongs in 49 3/5 seconds) and she has tactical speed, so hopefully she can break well and get good position going into the first turn.”

Four of the six entrants have displayed good early speed, making it contingent on their jockeys to keep them from running too fast, too early.

Second choice at 9-5 is trainer Joseph’s 4-year-old Libban, to be ridden by Zayas. She has won her last three starts, most recently a 1-mile allowance/optional claiming race on Dec. 3 at Gulfstream.

Florida-bred Dream Concert, trained by O’Connell with Antonio Gallardo in the saddle, and Magical Lute, an Ian Wilkes-trainee to be ridden by Camacho, also loom as solid threats.

The Pasco is perhaps of most interest to the general racing public because of its positioning on the calendar as a “prep” race for the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes here on Feb. 10 (which, in turn, leads into the Grade III, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9).

The Sam F. Davis is an early “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race, and that is what Demeritte and Veruchi have in mind after already securing 10 Run for the Roses qualifying points in the Iroquois.

“We have high hopes for him because of the way he trains,” Demeritte said. “He’s a very smart horse who doesn’t get rank on the bit, and he does whatever you ask him to do. He’s a good keeper, eats well and is improving every week. I think 7 (furlongs) is a good distance to set him up for a two-turn race, and we are staying here to run in the Davis” if all goes well and West Saratoga comes out of the race well.

Derek Ryan, who won the Pasco Stakes in 2009 with Musket Man – who went on to win the Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade II Illinois Derby and finish third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – wasn’t tipping his hand about future plans for Book’em Danno, but is satisfied with how he’s approaching the race.

“We hope it’s a dry track, but what are you gonna do?” Ryan said. “He’s coming in good, and this is a good spot for him to start the year. He should run his race, and hopefully he keeps going forward.”

Trainer Gregg Sacco said this morning he plans to scratch Inaugural Stakes runner-up Crazy Mason, choosing instead to run him Sunday in a mile-and-40-yard allowance/optional claiming event.

“Our main goal with him is the Sam F. Davis, so we want to find out about (his ability to compete racing around) two turns sooner rather than later,” Sacco said. “He had a wide trip in the (6-furlong) Inaugural, and he came rolling late and finished full of run.

“We believe he is a two-turn horse and if he proves it Sunday, we can come out with a good game plan for the Davis.”

That leaves Inaugural third-place finisher Rathmore, a Florida-bred, to challenge West Saratoga and Book’em Danno, as well as Bati King and Florida-breds Banded Rocket and El Principito.

Maldonado is Boot Barn Jockey of the Month. How close was the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month competition? Close enough to be decided by today’s first race, in which Late Night Living and Gabriel Maldonado held off Frizzante and Charlie Marquez by a neck. The day’s subsequent results enabled Maldonado to secure the award, inches ahead of Marquez.

Chances seem good racing fans will hear a lot from both jockeys as time goes on, and this is the apprentice Maldonado’s time to shine. He already has three two-victory performances here this season, and found time on Dec. 26 to win at Gulfstream on 2-year-old filly Miguel’s Belle for trainer Carlos David (Gulfstream results do not factor into the Boot Barn Jockey of the Month Award).

His agent here, former jockey Eddie Joe Zambrana, loves Maldonado’s work ethic. “Sometimes he gallops eight or nine horses in the morning. We love it. The more horses you work, the more business you have (for the races),” Zambrana said.

Maldonado, a 25-year-old Puerto Rico product, came to the game later than most of his rivals. He galloped horses for top trainer Chad Brown at Gulfstream and Saratoga in 2022 and early 2023 before deciding the time was right to see how he measures up.

It took him 15 tries to win his first race, and less than two weeks later he suffered a fractured hand in an accident that sidelined him almost two months. No one knew what to expect when he made the decision to come to Tampa Bay Downs this season, and even Maldonado acknowledged his surprise at being tied with Marquez and Jose Ferrer for fourth in the Oldsmar standings with 11 winners apiece through today’s racing.

“I learn every day from every race,” Maldonado said through Zambrana. “I’m trying to improve everything I do. Galloping for Chad Brown, I saw jockeys winning races and I decided I’d like the jockey business.”

As a veteran observer pointed out, the 7-pound apprentice allowance Maldonado received on Late Night Living might have made the difference in the mile-and-40-yard first race. It should also be mentioned the rider saved ground throughout and employed strong desire and technique to wrest a determined finish from his mount.

In horse racing, you learn early that “a game of inches” is more than a cliché. “There are a lot of good riders here, and he is trying to learn a little bit from each one, from watching and talking to them,” Zambrana said.

Antonio Gallardo rode two winners today. He captured the third race on Delightful Breeze, a 5-year-old Florida-bred mare owned by Gumpster Stable and trained by Darien Rodriguez. Gallardo added the ninth and final race with Thought, a 5-year-old horse owned by Larry Gourneau, Jr., and trained by Laura Cazares.

Gabriel Maldonado

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