By Mike Henry —-
OLDSMAR, FL. – Those darn butterflies were already starting to churn in trainer Mark Casse’s gut around noon today.
Not that Casse would trade the feeling. He’ll bring the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Turf Male, 6-year-old gray gelding World Approval, to the paddock for Saturday’s 11th race, the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass.
“It’s always kind of nerve-wracking when you’re running a champion and so much is expected,” said Casse, who conditioned World Approval to three consecutive Grade I victories last year, capped by his sterling performance in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf at Del Mar.
“It’s more a case of not wanting to let him down, as opposed to him not letting you down,” Casse said. “But we’re happy with where we’re at and comfortable letting him do the rest.”
The Tampa Bay Stakes is part of a loaded, 12-race Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card that includes the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds on the main track; the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf; and the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the dirt.
Post time for the first race is 12:13 pm. The Sam F. Davis is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race and the Suncoast is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race.
Saturday marks the second time in three years Casse has brought an Eclipse Award champion to Tampa Bay Downs In 2016, he saddled Tepin, the previous year’s Champion Turf Female, for victories in both the Lambholm South Endeavour and the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, kicking off her second consecutive Eclipse-winning season.
The handsome World Approval, bred and owned by Charlotte C. Weber’s Live Oak in Ocala, will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. He will break from the No. 7 post and carry 124 pounds, 7 more than his nine rivals.
Regardless of the impost, the morning-line handicapper has established World Approval at odds of 2-5.
Casse hopes to use the Tampa Bay Stakes as a prelude to a trip overseas for the $6-million Dubai Turf on March 31. “We’re wanting a big race out of him that hopefully will lead us to Dubai,” Casse said.
“We’ve had real good luck using Tampa Bay Downs as a starting point. The great turf course there got World Approval started last year” with a victory in the Florida Cup EG Vodka Turf Classic.
“We’ve done all we can do, and now it’s up to him,” Casse added.
The conditioner arrives Saturday with a strong hand, complemented by owner John C. Oxley’s Flameaway in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Sam F. Davis and Oxley’s 4-year-old filly La Coronel in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Lambholm South Endeavour on the grass. The Davis is the 10th race and the Endeavour the ninth.
“Flameaway is kind of an unknown, but the one thing I do know about him is that he loves to win,” Casse said, referring to his 4-for-6 record. His three stakes victories include the Grade III Dixiana Bourbon in October at Keeneland in a race taken off the turf and run on a sloppy main track and the Kitten’s Joy on Jan. 6 on the turf at Gulfstream.
Flameaway will break from the No. 2 post under jockey Jose Lezcano. He is 8-1 on the morning line in the seven-horse field. “He’s a big, beautiful horse, and Mr. Oxley feels he deserves a shot before (if) we go back to the grass. But there are some pretty big dirt races to go after, if he’s capable,” Casse said.
The 4-year-old La Coronel, last year’s Florida Oaks runner-up at Tampa Bay Downs, was last seen in action on Oct. 14 winning the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup presented by Lane’s End on the lawn at Keeneland. Lezcano will ride the Oxley-owned lass.
Casse hopes La Coronel can develop into a filly like Tepin, but he knows her seven rivals in the Lambholm South Endeavour are eager to delay that possibility. La Coronel is one of three 4-year-olds in the race, with the five others either 6 or 7 years old.
Toward her future objectives, Casse worked La Coronel together with World Approval on Jan. 27 at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach.
“This is her first time playing with the big girls,” Casse said. “It’s like a college superstar getting ready to start her professional career. It’s a big step up for her, but we feel confident she can handle it.”
One of the “big girls” is 6-year-old Argentine-bred mare Dona Bruja, who won the Grade III Old Forester Mint Julep at Churchill Downs and the Grade III Modesty at Arlington for trainer Ignacio Correas, IV last year after being sent stateside by owner Dom Felipe, LLC. She also finished in a dead-heat for second in the Grade I Beverly D Stakes at Arlington, a half-length behind Dacita.
Correas, who has named 2017 Eclipse Award Outstanding Jockey Jose Ortiz to ride, has been pointing Dona Bruja to the Lambholm South Endeavour since the fall, working her eight times over the Oldsmar main track since Dec. 19. She is the 9-5 morning-line favorite to La Coronel’s 2-1.
“I have big expectations of her,” Correas said of the Argentine champion, who is 10-for-14 lifetime. “I think she is sitting on a big race, but when you look at her career, all her races have been good. She is very talented, but this race is not going to be a walk in the park.”
Correas pointed out that even in her fourth-place performance in October in the Grade I First Lady at Keeneland, Dona Bruja ran the last two quarter-miles in 11 2/5 and 11 1/5 seconds. “There are some things you can’t manage” such as the pace of the race, Correas said.
“We’re just going step-by-step with her. This is a great race for her to start the year with, but I don’t plan for one race; I plan for the year.”
Meanwhile, can anyone believe the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is a mere 12 weeks away? That is one reason the 38th edition of the Sam F. Davis, which has attracted a field of seven 3-year-olds, will gather national attention.
The 8-5 morning-line favorite in the seven-horse field is Catholic Boy, a colt trained by Jonathan Thomas and to be ridden by Manuel Franco.
Thomas has worked his multiple graded-stakes winner twice over the Oldsmar oval, most recently Sunday in 49.20 seconds for 4 furlongs. “His two workouts here were executed like we wanted,” Thomas said.
“I thought the draw was decent for us (Catholic Boy breaks from the No. 6 post in the seven-horse field), because he is not a horse that tends to lead or be super close early. So I’m happy we’re not on the rail and Manny can let the race develop and see where he wants to put him.
“He is progressing in the right direction, but once your horse gets on the racetrack and loads into the gate, it’s out of your hands. You have to hope for a good trip and a well-executed ride,” Thomas said.
The same goes for his rivals, such as Hollywood Star, one of at least three serious Kentucky Derby candidates in the barn of trainer Dale Romans. He has been training since Jan. 6 at Gulfstream Park following a 2-year-old season that included second-place efforts in the Grade II Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Coors Light and the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs.
Joel Rosario has been named to ride.
“He has been putting things together this year and comes into the race in real good shape,” Romans said. “I thought he was as good physically as anyone last year, but he wasn’t as focused as he is now, to where he’s able to work fast by himself.
“He just needs to run his race and as long as he does, he should be right there,” Romans said.
Based on the history of the Sam F. Davis, it would be foolhardy to overlook Vino Rosso, 2-for-2 as a 2-year-old including a workmanlike allowance/optional claiming victory here on Dec. 22.
Vino Rosso, who again will be ridden by Velazquez, is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the Sam F. Davis six times, most recently in 2016 with Destin.
“He had a good workout last week (4 furlongs in 48.86 seconds at Palm Beach Downs in Delray Beach) and is continuing to improve,” said Pletcher, who has been pointing toward the race since Vino Rosso’s allowance triumph.
“I like the way he is developing physically, filling out and gaining strength and weight. The competition gets more difficult now, and we’re excited to see how he handles it.” Pletcher didn’t pay tremendous heed to Vino Rosso’s so-so speed figures from the Dec. 22 race, other than to acknowledge he’ll have to be faster to win Saturday.
“He has to be a little more professional and finish a little stronger” to move forward, Pletcher said.
Joining Catholic Boy, Hollywood Star, Flameaway and Vino Rosso in the Sam F. Davis are trainer Arnaud Delacour’s Vouch, who finished third to Catholic Boy in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct; Septimius Severus, from the barn of George Weaver; and the maiden Navy Armed Guard, trained by Joan Scott.
The mile-and-40-yard Suncoast Stakes is slated as the seventh race The 2-1 morning-line favorite is Daisy, winner of the Grade III Tempted Stakes in November at Aqueduct. Trained by John Servis, she will be ridden by Velazquez.
Second choice in the eight-horse field at 5-2 is Blonde Bomber, a stakes winner who finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies on Nov. 4 at Del Mar. She is trained by Stanley I. Gold and will be ridden by Lezcano.
Another strong contender is the Romans-trained C. S. Incharge, who broke her maiden on Jan. 3 in impressive fashion on a sloppy track at Gulfstream.
Around the oval. Saturday’s fun-packed festivities begin at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand with track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” show. His special guest is trainer Jonathan Thomas.
All who attend will receive free coffee, donuts and Grandstand passes.
The young and not-so-young, relatively speaking, were well-represented on today’s card. In the sixth race, a mile-and-40-yard maiden special weight contest for 3-year-old fillies, first-time starter Virginia Key staved off a belated charge from wagering favorite Ipanema Beach to post a length-and-a-half victory. A homebred racing for Blue Heaven Farm, Virginia Key is trained by Todd Pletcher and was ridden by Jesus Castanon.
In the second race, a 7-furlong allowance/optional claiming event for older horses, 8-year-old gelding Divine Ambition continued to excel, winning by two-and-a-quarter lengths lengths from Mr Lightning Boy.
Now 16-for-49 lifetime, Divine Ambition has won three of four starts at the meeting, with one second. He is owned and trained by Maria Bowersock and was ridden by Ronnie Allen, Jr. Divine Ambition’s time of 1:22.26 was .86 seconds off the track record.
Tampa Bay Downs 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.