For the first time in a couple years, Picks and Ponderings won't be at the Sam F. Davis Stakes -- our foray south will instead happen a little later this winter, for the Tampa Bay Derby. However, being in Chicago won't stop us from previewing Saturday's pair of sophomore dirt stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) for open company and the Suncoast Stakes, the newest-minted Oaks points prep.
In addition to looking at Tampa's pair of preps, we also preview Saturday's Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn, a points race for the Kentucky Oaks.
The preview of the Sam F. Davis Stakes is published in conjunction with ThoroFan Handicapper's Corner. Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Edited Thursday, February 8 to add morning lines. Edited Saturday, February 10 to account for the scratches of VOUCH from the Sam F. Davis and PROSPECTIVE LADY and BATTLE BACK CURLY from the Suncoast.
Saturday, February 10 -- Tampa Bay Downs
Race 7: Suncoast Stakes, three year old fillies, one mile and forty yards on the dirt, post time 3:16pm EST
This year marks the 38th year that the Suncoast Stakes has been run, though it was named the Gardenia Stakes through 1988. Originally a seven-furlong race for three-year-old fillies, it was stretched to 1 1/16 miles starting in 1993. In 2007 it was run at about a mile, and the next year it settled at its current distance of a mile and forty yards. Two recent winners of the Suncoast Stakes have eventually added Grade 1 victories to their resumes. Include Betty (2015) won the Mother Goose (G1) the following June; Weep No More (2016) upset the Ashland Stakes (G1) in her next start. Last year's second place finisher, Elate, also went on Grade 1 glory in both the Alabama and the Beldame. Befitting the recent strength of its form, the Suncoast now offers Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (10-4-2-1) to its top four finishers, in addition to shares of a $150,000 purse.
Over the years, there have been many local connections to this race. Toll Taker (2005) was bred in the state by Lothenbach Stables, though campaigned by trainer Timothy Hills for Sea Gull Associates after being transferred privately. Other Suncoast winners have had success in Chicagoland, as well. The durable racemare Leave It Be (1988), who won 24 times in her 61 starts, won the Sixty Sails Handicap (G3) at Sportsman's Park in 1990 as well as the Lady Hallie Handicap over that same track in 1991. Crown Jewel (1999) went off the favourite in the National Jockey Club Oaks at Hawthorne that April, but settled for second behind Isle Be Loving You on that trip to Stickney.
BELLES ORB may be new to stakes company, but she comes into the Suncoast with all the upside in the world, and this space likes her a lot. She comes off a victory in one-other-than company going seven furlongs at Tampa, showing that she can handle the course. Also, BELLES ORB showed in that outing that she could rate and rally -- a positive especially because her maiden win had come on the front end, but this race has plenty of speed from the likes of DAISY, SO REFINED, and rail-mired C. S. INCHARGE. BELLES ORB keeps strong Tampa rider Daniel Centeno from that outing, another point in her favour.
The pedigree also sparkles. BELLES ORB should also flourish on the stretch out to a route distance for the first time. Sire Orb was a Kentucky Derby winner, and the average winning distance of his progeny is already over seven furlongs even though his oldest crop is just three. BELLES ORB's dam Sweet Belle was a stakes winner going a mile on turf, but won on both grass and dirt, at distances as long as a mile and an eighth. She has carried that distance ability to her foals, as all three of her other winners have posed for win pictures after going a mile or longer.
MIHRAB hails from the barn of Graham Motion. Motion has selectively sent runners to Tampa, and the ones he has sent have done well: in 31 starts, he has seven wins and another 10 miney finishes. MIHRAB was flat going two turns on turf in her debut, but sprung to life next out, when trying dirt for the first time. That day she chased midpack early, made a middle move, and left them all chasing her home. Though MIHRAB regressed a bit from that in the Gin Talking Stakes, finishing fourth behind next-out Ruthless S. winner Strategic Dreams, she should be able to right the ship here third off a little freshening. The stretch to a route should also help MIHRAB; being by Tiznow out of a mare who has produced a pair of graded stakes placed turf milers (Play It Loud and Vigilante), she should take well to the distance.
Now we get to the horses taking most of the chatter leading into this race: DAISY and BLONDE BOMBER. Sure, DAISY isn't impossible. Though she hasn't proven she can come from off the pace, she has at least proven she can fight a bit up front, and she does get a quality new jockey in John Velazquez. But, will she outgun SO REFINED? That's a question, and without her having proven she can get the job done from off the pace, this space prefers BLONDE BOMBER for the defensive use category. She was a dud last out in the Silverbulletday Stakes, but that was her first start off a layoff of a bit longer than two months. Perhaps BLONDE BOMBER needed the race -- after all, she fizzled on debut last out, but began to find her stride second time out. The Tampa course is the big question; will she handle it? Still, she has shown great tactical versatility in her career, and the fact that she ran as well as she did in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) still makes this space willing to believe that BLONDE BOMBER isn't just a Gulfstream Park Horse. The combination of her class and the possibility that she improves second off the lay makes her a must-use in multi-race bets.
#5 BELLES ORB (5/1)
#6 MIHRAB (8/1)
#2 BLONDE BOMBER (5/2)
Longshot: #7 SO REFINED (15/1) gets a class test here: not only is it her first try against winners, but her maiden victory came against washed-off turfers. Here, of course, she faces well-intended dirt stakes fillies. Yet, she has a right to improve to meet it. The Kent Sweezey trainee comes second off the lay, and gets Lasix for the first time. And, the race covers familiar territory for SO REFINED: a mile and forty yards over fast Tampa dirt, the same as her maiden score. Pace is a bit of a question, as she broke her maiden on the front end, and both DAISY outside of her and C. S. INCHARGE inside her have shown speed in their better work. SO REFINED may prove to be the fastest of that speed, however, and she also showed ability in her second-place finish two back to stay interested when not on the pace, giving her options here.
Race 10: Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:52pm EST
Sam F. Davis was a businessman in the Tampa area who served as president of Tampa Bay Downs from 1972 through 1980. The next year, the track inaugurated this stakes for three-year-olds in his honour. It has been run on dirt at a mile and a sixteenth every year but 1981 (one mile seventy yards) and 1985 (seven furlongs), and gained its Grade 3 status in 2009.
A prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, six horses have followed a win in this race up with a win in Tampa Bay Downs's richest event of the year: Phantom Jet (1987), Speedy Cure (1991), Marco Bay (1993), Thundering Storm (1996), Burning Roma (2001), and Destin (2016). Though no one has yet won the Sam F. Davis and then one of the Triple Crown races, three Todd Pletcher trainees have come close. Bluegrass Cat (2006) finished second behind Barbaro on the first Saturday in May, and also finished second behind Jazil in the Belmont. The aforementioned Destin, missed by just a nose to Creator in the Belmont. And, Tapwrit came close the other way: second behind McCraken in the 2017 running of the Sam F. Davis, he went on to win the Belmont four months later.
Destin wins the 2016 Sam F. Davis Stakes over Rafting. Destin went on to finish second in the Belmont, and won the Marathon Stakes (G2) on last year's Breeders' Cup Friday undercard. Rafting won a two-other-than allowance at Tampa last month, and returns in a conditioned allowance on this year's Davis undercard.
CATHOLIC BOY comes into the Sam F. Davis as the class of the field. He has never put forth a poor effort in four career starts, and though most of them came on turf, he handled dirt well two months ago with a decisive victory in the Remsen (G2). He hails from the barn of Jonathan Thomas, who knows how to get a horse ready to fire off a lay, and CATHOLIC BOY himself ran a good fourth behind Mendelssohn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) last year, first off a two-month freshening. The biggest question about CATHOLIC BOY? The surface. It has claimed so many before, horses who had such good form coming in, but could not handle the deep, beach-sand footing at Tampa Bay Downs. Even though he has a few works over the surface, if there is a credible alternative proven on race day, it's worth looking there.
Enter VINO ROSSO. Though VINO ROSSO will not be a massive price -- probably the second betting choice after CATHOLIC BOY -- he is the only one in the field with a victory over the Tampa Bay Downs dirt. The well-meant Todd Pletcher trainee got his diploma at Aqueduct in November, then returned with a comfortable N1X allowance score at Tampa on December 22. Rider John Velazquez paired with VINO ROSSO for both of those outings, and returns to the irons here. This will be VINO ROSSO's first test, but in neither of his previous efforts did it look like he showed his bottom. He'll likely get the jump on CATHOLIC BOY, and just a reasonable step forward from his previous work gets VINO ROSSO to the wire here.
The other major contenders in this race include FLAMEAWAY and HOLLYWOOD STAR, now that VOUCH has scratched. HOLLYWOOD STAR was scratched from the Holy Bull to run here, but he has the same Tampa surface question as CATHOLIC BOY, and should both take to the surface it seems CATHOLIC BOY stands to outfinish him. FLAMEAWAY is a question given that his effort on dry dirt disappointed, but his running style makes him a bit better gamble, especially since a possible speed in VOUCH has left the race. FLAMEAWAY is frequently forward, and though he can also stalk and fight, the defection makes him possible to be lone speed here. He ran a good, tough race in the Kitten's Joy Stakes (on turf) last out, and if he can replicate that on dirt, his pace advantage can make him a contender. Demand a price -- replication is a big if -- but it's a possibility, and one that makes him a bit more attractive on the win end than other contenders here.
#3 VINO ROSSO (3/1)
#6 CATHOLIC BOY (8/5)
#5 FLAMEAWAY (8/1)
Longshot: #1 NAVY ARMED GUARD (15/1) is the sole maiden in the field, but has been consistent enough to hit the board in four of his five outings to date. What makes him most interesting is his most recent race -- his first over the Tampa dirt, and his first at two turns. Second beaten a neck, the Joan Scott trainee ran the best race of his career so far, and proved he could handle the Tampa surface. NAVY ARMED GUARD is going the right way, and should be good enough to rally late and invade the exotics at a big price here.
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