The festivities in Tampa this Saturday breaks up what is a slight lull in Derby prep season with no preps scheduled again until March 25th. You’d have to go back to 2019 and Tacitus to find the last Tampa Bay Derby winner to have had any impact in the Kentucky Derby (he was 3rd behind….uh…Country House) though to be fair, the 2020 version was held six months prior because of that pesky pandemic. Last year’s winner Classic Causeway bombed in the Derby before switching trainers and becoming a factor in the three year old turf marathon division (and is on todays card back on the dirt in the Challenger Stakes).
The card is a good one with traditional undercard fixtures, the Challenger (Gr III), Columbia, Florida Oaks (Gr III) and Hillsborough (Gr II) stakes all as usual featuring competitive, full fields of runners. Our guy Barry Spears will be on location, providing helpful handicapping info for the track/ADW feeds as well.
👑 The Champ is back and he looks better than ever. Forte made quick work of mostly middling competition in the Fountain of Youth (Gr II), parlaying a good trip to an easy score, Irad Ortiz taking him in hand late. As we have found out approximately 12 million times, this doesn’t mean he is surely going to win the Kentucky Derby, as transversing the alligator filled moat that is the next 8 weeks can be daunting. However he isn’t the “pro tempore leader” of the division anymore, he is the clear boss. Other observations from that race: Rocket Can ran well, he is progressing but still seems to need to get a whole lot better if he is gonna be a real factor on the first Saturday in May. Cyclone Mischief will likely press on the trail, but he shouldn’t as 10 furlongs is going to be a bridge too far for him. Mage gave a good account of himself and taking a shot in the Florida Derby that he will draw better and potentially get a better trip isn’t a bad idea (it’s a huge purse and likely soft group) but he is not winning the Kentucky Derby. Blazing Sevens was so bad that there has to be a logical excuse but I have not heard one yet. Forget the rest.
⛰️ Most of the San Felipe pre-race banter centered around the three Baffert refugees that had been transferred (sorta, kinda transferred) to trainer Tim Yakteen, who has acted in the surrogate trainer role for Mr B these last two Derby trails. However the star of the show proved to be Yakteen’s own Practical Move who’s 3yo debut was quite similar to Forte’s, leaving little doubt who currently sits atop the Derby trail among the West coast contenders. He hadn’t raced since a strong effort in the Los Al Futurity (Gr II) back in December, but the son of Practical Joke (interestingly enough bred by Chad Brown and Sol Kumin) shrugged off some early issues leaving the gate, parlaying good position under by Ramon Vazquez to score a decisive victory. Geaux Rocket Ride in just his 2nd start, 1st one around an extra turn, chased early leader Hejazi, remained three wide outside that one around the final bend, angled inside as Hejazi drifted turning for home and held his position through the lane to prove second best in a nice effort. Skinner did Skinner things, making a menacing rally from the outside turning into the homestretch but struggled to get by a tiring Hejazi and was third sorta by default. I can’t say that I love him but the son of Curlin has the stamina to get the 10 furlongs, the style to take advantage of a classic Kentucky Derby pace meltdown and a bit of a Giacomo vibe (🚨someone alert Ken Rudolph!). For purposes of the Derby trail, also forget the rest.
🗽 I do not believe that any serious contenders emerged from a roughly run Gotham (Gr III) over a muddy surface with a loose Howgreatisnate providing some extra chaos. Take nothing away from the winner Raise Cain but he got an excellent, ground saving ride from Jose Lezcano, behind a classic pace meltdown (1st half in 45.53 - 2nd half in 52.56). We often discriminate against great trip horses but IMO it’s great trip horses in races where most everyone else found trouble that should be looked at with some side eye and Raise Cain falls directly into that category. Slip Mahoney ran well in his initial try with winners though he also benefitted from the pace dynamics (horses 1-2-3 were 9-13-12 after the half). He is pretty good and this years crop is anything but, however he is playing catch-up with exactly zero two turn races under his belt, preparing to go 10 furlongs in 60 days. General Banker dances all the dances and is as consistent as one can be. He has a classic David versus Goliath background story being trained by veteran Jimmy Ferraro and owned by Seacoast Thoroughbreds of New England, a one man show run by John Forma, who races almost exclusively home breds foaled in NY at McMahon Thoroughbreds outside of Saratoga (Click here to read his story).
🐗 Oaklawn Park has an excellent race on tap today, the $350,000 Azeri (Gr II) featuring an early season duel between Clairiere and Secret Oath with the promising Interstatedaydream being a potential third wheel showing up to the big girls party. Run as race number 9, post time is approx 5:54 eastern. Side note: Oaklawn Park Racing office please change the ridiculous weight conditions for this race! It’s ludicrous that Lovely Ride carries 5 pounds more and Moon Swag 3 pounds more than the fillies and mares coming out of the freaking Breeders’ Cup Distaff because they won the Mistletoe, Pippen and Broussard. Those are all ungraded races that the connections of the Clairiere’s and Secret Oaths of the game wouldn’t even consider running in. This isn’t 1985 anymore, change your condition book and stakes conditions to encourage participation, not penalize it. All carry 121 with non-graded stakes winners carrying 118. How hard is that? As my podcast partner Barry says “control the controllables and fix the fixables”.
🌵 The Phoenix Gold Cup runs today (amazingly scheduled post is 5:54 eastern…the same as the Azeri) and no one outside of the Phoenix metro area will pay much attention to the results. 36 years ago however it was a more prominent race on the west coast sprint schedule and a horse named Zany Tactics did something that still hasn’t been equaled. He won the 1987 Gold Cup ($100,000 purse which is the same as this years running) setting a world record by covering the 6 furlongs in an astounding 1:06.4. Read about it here and check out the notes section and read about the legends of the turf that were competing that season.
💵 The Kentucky Derby Future Book #5 is open and there are quite a few interesting options beyond the handful of obvious choices. We never suggest taking low odds in any future wager so we are not going bet Forte or Arabian Knight but with 7 weeks to go after Saturdays Tampa Bay Derby (which should have little impact) a lot of things can still happen. Reincarnate at 28-1 (as of print time) is interesting and the aforementioned Skinner is sitting at 61-1. The Kentucky Oaks Future pool and the Oaks/Derby double Future pool are both open till Sunday at 6pm eastern. I took a flyer on Punch Bowl (20-1) in the Oaks pool and a DD hooking her up with Reincarnate, Forte and Instant Coffee, all of which are juicy payoffs.
🎤 A couple of surprising announcer changes were made this week. Larry Collmus had his name leaked on Twitter (by the deposed former announcer) as the new caller of the Dubai World Cup races (March 25) and Oaklawn Park let Vic Stauffer go and has replaced him on a temporary basis with Jim Byars, the regular announcer at Lone Star Park.
🏇🏻Today we preview Tampa’s turf stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby
Columbia Stakes $75,000 1 mile grass 3yo’s
Freedom Trail - 2 for 2 on the grass, took an unsuccessful shot on the dirt last fall in the KY Jockey Club at CD. Returns to turf, draws well, adds Irad and Lasix but short price looms and while he is a contender there are other viable options in this field.
Sendero - erratic sort isn’t a typical Pletcher horse. In general his horses run relatively consistently but this guy only fires occasionally. His closing style should suit Tampa’s course better than Gulfstream and him grabbing piece of the pie is not without its possibilities.
A Western Yarn - 2 for his last 2, both over the course for Delacour who has some wild numbers related to this entry. He is winning 28% lifetime with jockey Centeno including 34% over the last two Tampa meets, good for a $2.49 ROI. He also wins 31% with repeat winners with a $2.70 ROI. This particular horse has the likely advantage of being the controlling speed though there are others that can press that pace, the question is will they? He has paired 12.75 TG’s and will have to improve to win but if he gets the lead, saves ground and dictates the terms on the front end, he could take these wire to wire at a nice price (BTW - IMO fair market price on him is in the 8-1 range, lower than his ML)
Naga’s Boy - set ridiculously slow pace under heady Centeno in latest. Loses him to A Western Yarn and doesn’t figure to get that same trip as he just doesn’t seem fast enough against this class.
Lights of Broadway - has not progressed much since September and recent weak effort led to Casse making the ultimate equipment change as he will be racing as a first time gelding here. Finished ahead of recent Battaglia stakes winner on Turfway tapioca, Congruent, two back though not sure that has much bearing in this spot. Not impossible but tough to really like too.
Summer Bee - been unsuccessfully chasing A Western Yarn this winter, probably continues that same unsuccessful pattern.
Worthington - bombed when trying a surface change in the Sam Davis (Gr III). Back to the grass for Maker who has a positive ROI in stakes races ($2.03) in his last 247 starts. Ran consistently fast figs for this group (TG 10’s) prior to the dirt debacle and Paco, who Maker has had good success with, lands here. Have to give Worthington a big chance in here.
Smoke Lightening - first time going long off the layoff since October. Not really much to indicate that move will prove fruitful as Munnings progeny generally have distance limitations and his dam was better sprinting on all-weather than long on grass.
Mo Stash - Exits a solid try in the Breeders Cup Juvenile when sitting perfect trip stalking rank outsider, grabbing the lead at the top of the stretch but getting overwhelmed the last 1/8th of mile by the Euro shippers. None of those in this spot and you’d have to think if this colt resided in a higher profile barn with better layoff numbers, he’d be the prohibitive favorite in here. Has by far the best TG (7) in here but that was earned last fall in a 5.5 f turf sprint stakes at Keeneland and does add Luis Saez, which is never a bad thing. His 10.5 TG earned in the BC has been matched by several others in here though they did it recently, not in early November and as we see on a weekly basis, much improvement can occur in a four month period for a young racehorse. The issue here is you are taking a relative short price and have Oliver’s soft layoff stats (8% with $1.08 ROI) and the bizarre 0 for 29 first time lasix with only 17% ITM from her last 2031 starts, to ponder.
Talk of the Nation - graduated last out in his grass and two turn debut over this course, earning a solid 10.5 TG. Shug has phenomenal Tampa numbers winning 34% w/57% ITM from 119 starts with $2.19 ROI, and is 13-5-2-1 good for 38% this meet. Wide draw isn’t ideal but does have some tactical speed and Camacho is among Tampa’s more aggressive riders so taking a positive view of his chances makes sense.
Hillsborough Stakes (Gr II) $225,000 FM 4&up 1 1/8 grass
Kalifornia Queen (Ger) - 6 yo mare only managed two pretty ordinary starts last year. She has plenty of graded black type including a grade 1 placing from 2021 so I’d imagine the goal is trying become a graded stakes winner this season. She could beat these on her best but it’s been a long time since she ran those type of races.
Surprisingly - parlayed a solid pace, ground saving trip and strong late kick to pull off a surprise in the Endeavor (Gr III), the Tampa prep for this race. Several are consistently faster than her though she just turned 4 and has room to improve, she needs to. There does not seem to be much early speed signed on here and that makes backing her a shaky proposition.
Temple City Terror - 7 year old mare makes the first start of her long career at Tampa and also her first at the 9 furlong distance. Most of her best work has been done at longer distances, not much early speed exists to aid her late kick and this seems to be more of a stepping stone race than a destination one.
Rougir (Fr) - sometimes it’s annoying to hear the Euro trainers obsess over “the going” but this mare is a good example of why sometimes there are factors beyond basic pps that play important roles. She has performed much better in her US career at tracks with wide, flowing turns, Belmont and Woodbine and not as well on the turf with tight bends. Tampa’s course doesn’t feature a circumference like the bigger tracks so take that as you may. It’s not inconceivable that she can run well here, but she can be a little pace dependent and I don’t see much help forthcoming in that area either.
Gam’s Mission - consistent mare makes seasons debut in her first race since last June when she took down the Mint Julep (Gr III) over the beleaguered Churchill Downs turf course. Is 1 for 1 at the 9 furlong distance and her last while quite some time ago, was her best figure by far (TG 3.5) which is good enough to win. Consider.
Shantisara (Ire) - probable fav off of runner up placing in FM Pegasus Turf. Does have the luxury of already having a race under her belt, retains Irad who is a difference maker and this is her best distance. When she first landed on these shores and was racing on a regular basis, she did nothing but improve and any move up off of her GP run makes her very tough to beat, albeit at a chalky price.
Scotish Star (Arg) - just missed in good try in Endeavor (Gr III) after sitting decent trip but losing some ground on the turns. Likely pace setter in here with very little other early speed signed on. Can Saez ‘walk the dog’ on the front end, create some separation turning for home and still have enough left late to hold off the closers? Tough call.
Florida Oaks (Gr III) $200,000 1 1/16 turf 3 yo fillies
Mission of Joy - paired 11.25 TG, draws the rail, the longer the better with a daughter of Kitten’s Joy, tactical speed and walks over from her own stall. Also first time lasix and that is one of trainer Motion’s most effective angles, winning 23% with a $2.16 ROI from a whopping sample size of 456. A lot to like and anything near the 12-1 ML is a beautiful price
Allamericanbeauty - has a quarter horse name. Should be in first flight behind the early leaders, needs to improve quite a bit to be a player here
Alpha Bella - first of the Bella’s. Improving sort that has found even more success with the move to the grass. Like many others adds lasix and Saez should be able to use her tactical speed to find a comfortable forward position. Yes Cairo Consort got beat last weekend at GP but she isn’t improving, this filly still seems to be.
Faccia Bella - I needed her for enough that Tampa might have had to pay me in gold bars when she was a really good 4th in the last race on Sam Davis day. Was well meant when breaking her maiden 2 weeks later going 9f (beating 2 Chris Clement and a Chad Brown horse) and cuts back to 8.5 here, again on 2 weeks rest. She is going to be a long price and using on the bottom of exotics isn’t the worst idea.
Dreaming of Snow - shocked the world with the wire to wire upset of the 2 yo filly champ Wonder Wheel and the prodigal sister, Julia Shining in the Suncoast Stakes (dear graded stakes committee…GRADE THAT RACE!). Tries the grass here and I’m not sure why other than trainer Bennett doesn’t want to ship and Tampa doesn’t have a fillies version of the Tampa Bay Derby anymore. Bennett does win 20% first time turf from a limited sample but I’d fade here and let her beat me. There seems to be plenty of other fillies with tactical speed and I don’t think they will let Camacho steal away.
Navy Goat - been a slow road to improvement and despite Delacour’s gaudy numbers in some pertinent categories (though 0-14 in graded stakes) I’m not convinced that she is good enough.
Stephanie’s Charm - post killed any chance in latest but she always gets way behind then is forced to lose ground and her trainer still has not won a race on the turf.
Juniper’s Moon - Galileo filly has two decent grass efforts (12.75 TG) around a waste of time dirt race. In her initial start she closed ground after a troubled start, in her last Camacho took advantage of a pace less race to steal one. I like her versatility, Dutrow is very capable despite having a much smaller barn than in the past and I’d consider using her underneath on your tickets. If you are looking for a bomb, she is worth a second look.
Mohawk Trail - possesses tactical speed and Morales will need to use it to get position coming out of the dogleg without getting hung too wide. Tough to see her getting the trip she needs, might wind up pressing 3 wide if there is a scramble to set up shop just off of Dreaming of Snow.
Free Look - is she the “best” filly in here? Well based on last fall’s form you’d probably make that case. Does that make her the horse to beat in here? Yeah you’d probably say that. Is she a single on multi race bets? Absolutely not. She did pair TG 9’s in her last two as a two year old yet she lost both as she hung in the Miss Grillo (Gr II) and just wasn’t not good enough in the BCup, her trouble line was modest contact that did not appear to be impactful. Feels like I say this a lot but she will almost assuredly be overbet but these days those types also seem to win more often than they should.
Grace Darling (Ire) - looked impressive visually breaking her maiden but fig came back slow and post is difficult
Ticker Tape Home - terrible in dirt try, back to grass but post hurts and unless Jaramillo sends hard, she is gonna lose ground or be further back than usual. Either way I will let her beat me.
Tampa Bay Derby (Gr III) $400,000 1 1/16 3yo (50 KYD pts)
Lord Miles - zero excuse when no show in the slowish Holy Bull (Gr III). Both prior races passed horses late on the outside which might be a tough spot to get to from the rail in a bulky field.
Classic Car Wash - minor rally to be third in the Sam Davis. Regression is just as likely as progression here. He’s a very mediocre horse in a very mediocre race
Classic Legacy - made meanacing run to mid-stretch in the Davis before hanging late. Raced green going into the first turn, caught wide down the backside and and throughout the second turn. Perhaps just ran out of gas coming off of an easy win sprinting the prior start and is eligible to improve here. Picks up Irad which is a big plus and outside of the obvious favorite, he is about your only other plausible option.
Groveland - Centeno made a wise decision in the Sam Davis to stay on the rail, save ground and pick up the pieces leading him to grab a nice second place check. He could improve off that effort and this is a weak field for a Derby prep in mid-March so getting on the board again is possible.
Mikey Bananas - distant second best to Kingsbridge, who is promising but more reputation than credentialed at this point. Just looks too slow.
Tapit Trice - towers over these in ability but he does have some flaws in his game. First one is he breaks slow…not bad mind you, just slow. That can lead to problems with the short run to the turn, especially if he has just one beaten and is surrounded by slowpokes as they head down the backside. He seems like a grinding type which also requires clear trips and it’s entirely possible that the son of Tapit is wide on the turns. Yet none of that may matter if he can break midpack and settle into a good stalking position down the backside. He is good and seems to be getting better, most of his opponents aren’t all that good and they need to get a lot better to beat him.
Freedom Road - has yet to prove that he isn’t just a closing sprinter despite his sire Malibu Moon, who has been stamina influence.
Dreaming of Kona - wouldn’t be surprised if he wound up gunning to the lead after chasing wide and fading last out. Hard to recommend.
Shesterkin - Tapit Trice barnmate adds blinkers after showing speed in both of his one turn starts. Ducked in mid-stretch and steady faded after that in his last. Loses Irad but should still ensure that a lively pace sets things up for TT.
Champions Dream - I have actually seen people try to make a case for him which is baffling.
Zydeceaux - speed and fade
Prairie Hawk - the wiseguy horse last time saved ground to no avail, steady retreat in the stretch.
📽️ Todays Video of the week takes us back to that day when Woody Stephens showed up at Tampa Bay Downs with a horse named Cefis. The two most amazing aspects of this video are how far out of it Cefis was and the huge run he put in and the fact that Richard Grunder sounded exactly the same in 2021 when he retired as he did in 1988!
Racing fans will be focused on Tampa today. And your sidekick will be entertaining them with his selections. Here's to a great day of racing and the picks by you and Barry be the right ones at the price.
Don’t be dissing Classic Car Wash.