In terms of the “big picture,” the majority of the focus Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs will be on the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds, and rightfully so.
Not only is the Davis a major prize in its own right, it is part of the new Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands points system to determine which horses qualify for the May 4 Run for the Roses.
The 33rd running of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Davis on the main dirt track also enables owners and trainers to decide if their horses are ready to advance to other Derby preps, such as the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.
But the two other stakes on Saturday’s 12-race Festival Preview Day Card – the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, and the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares – share the same level of fascination as the Davis among leading outfits and Thoroughbred cognoscenti.
Both mile-and-a-sixteenth races on the turf, the Oaks and Endeavour attract world-class runners from barns that focus on the grassy side of the sport.
The 30th renewal of the Florida Oaks will be the seventh race Saturday, with the 14th running of the Endeavour slated as the ninth race and the Davis as the 11th. Post time for the first race Saturday is 12:20 p.m.
The Florida Oaks was previously run as a Grade III race from 1996-2003 and from 2008-2010. But it has taken on a new dimension since moving from the dirt to the turf two years ago, resulting in the American Graded Stakes Committee restoring the grade this year.
The past two winners, Dynamic Holiday in 2011 and Dixie Strike last year, have come from the barns of H. Graham Motion and Mark Casse, respectively. Dynamic Holiday followed her Florida Oaks victory by taking the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes on turf at Gulfstream.
Dixie Strike was even more prolific after leaving Tampa Bay Downs, winning the Grade III Selene Stakes at Woodbine and the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes on the dirt at Fort Erie.
Both trainers have returned for Saturday’s Florida Oaks, with Motion entering Rusty Slipper and Casse sending out Floral Sky and Jadira.
Zanin Meahjohn, the owner of Rusty Slipper, paid a $3,000 supplemental fee to enter the filly, who was not originally nominated to the race. Rusty Slipper (by Lemon Drop Kid out of Classic Approval, by With Approval), who will be ridden by Daniel Centeno, has won her first two career starts on the Tampa Bay Downs turf course since the start of the current meet.
“She ran two great races here, and that is why we are running Saturday,” said Camille Valette, Motion’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant. “When I looked at the replays, the two races were almost the same. She won both very easily (both times by almost three lengths) and her finishes were very impressive.
“I really like the turf course here. Our horses have run great on it (6-for-15 at the meet), so I can’t complain about it,” Valette said. “The quality of turf is very good and our horses seem to love it.”
Casse and Motion are also represented in the Endeavour, with Casse sending out Exclusive Love and Motion running Appealing Cat.
Meanwhile, owner Martin S. Schwartz and trainer Chad C. Brown will pursue back-to-back victories in the Endeavour, this time with 5-year-old Ireland-bred mare Dealbata. She will be ridden by Jose Lezcano. Schwartz and Brown will also be represented in the Florida Oaks by Wave Theory, who finished second in the Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 1 in her previous start.
Brown has also entered 4-year-old filly Pianist in the Endeavour for owners Hidden Brook Farm and Dan Zucker.
Schwartz and Brown won the 2012 Endeavour with the French-bred Zagora, a now-6-year-old mare who has since been retired and sold. Zagora returned to Tampa Bay Downs five weeks later to capture the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf in track-record time of 1:46.97 for a mile-and-an-eighth.
Turns out, Zagora was just getting started. She added victories in the Grade III Gallorette at Pimlico and the Grade II Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga, and in November won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita to sew up Eclipse Award honors as Outstanding Turf Female. Schwartz and Brown won the Eclipse in the same category in 2011 with Stacelita.
“We’ve got a bunch of nice prospects in the barn, so hopefully we’ll find another one like Zagora,” said Brown, who hopes Dealbata can take a step in that direction. Dealbata won two stakes in France in 2011 but only ran three times in the United States last year, winning the Mohegan Sky at Belmont and finishing second in two other stakes.
“I freshened Dealbata up this winter and she may be a little short for Saturday, but she is very sound and this is a very appealing race for her to start the season, even though she may not be where we want to be yet,” Brown said.
“Most of my horses go over the Tampa Bay Downs turf course very well. It plays very fair, and that is what trainers are looking for – a safe, fair surface,” Brown said. “We’ve had a lot of luck there, it’s a wonderful place to race and we look forward to going back.”
It’s those kind of endorsements that make it clear Tampa Bay Downs has plenty to offer horses of all ages and preferences, whether dirt or turf. And that explains why Saturday will be triple-loaded with excitement.
Danny Coa and Ryan Curatolo each rode two winners on Thursday’s card. Coa was aboard 3-year-old colt Sharp Deal in the second race for owner Winning Stables, Inc. and trainer Gerald Bennett. Sharp Deal paid $24.20 to win.
Coa returned to the winner’s circle after the sixth race on 5-year-old gelding Saintly Love, who won on the turf for owner Robert Gerczak and trainer Carlos Garcia. Saintly Love paid $4.20.
Curatolo piloted 4-year-old filly Take What You Can to victory in the third race, a maiden special weight, for owner Captain Jack Racing Stable LLC and trainer Anthony Granitz. Curatolo helped another horse break its maiden in the eighth race on the turf, winning on first-time starter Tattenham for owner Juddmonte Farms, Inc. and Hall of Fame trainer William Mott. Live racing resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:38 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.