Over the last two decades, no racetrack in America has organically raised its stature more than Tampa Bay Downs. The old school facility in Oldsmar, Florida has gone from a mostly backwater winter operation for cheap horses from New England, Ohio, Delaware and the late, great Calder, to a thriving program buoyed by perhaps the best grass course in the country. When I was stabled there in the early 2000’s, the only other trainer from a major circuit with a sizable outfit was Tom Proctor. To be honest, if I hadn’t been training for Stella Thayer, the long time owner of Tampa Bay Downs, it’s very unlikely that I would have been there. I recall my owners fretting about winning races as the purse structure, while still not lucrative currently, was anemic and maiden special weight races for $14,000 purses were usually littered with refugees from maiden $7500 races that had overfilled. Yet despite the day to day quality of racing being several layers below what we were accustomed to, an afternoon at the races at Tampa Bay Downs was always fun with lively crowds and a throwback attitude. You could walk in the Clubhouse and see Don Zimmer in his usual perch in the simulcast room and hear his latest hard luck story about a filly he bet that got beat at the wire. You would wander upstairs to the box seat area and see The Boss, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who once upon a time was Mrs Thayer’s partner in the track till she made him an offer and and didn’t allow him to refuse it. Mostly though there were people, regular people having fun, enjoying the races. They lined the fence to the paddock, straining to see the field of $5000 platers ambling around the freshly manicured horse path awaiting their mostly journeyman jockey partners to join them. They cheered loudly as the mostly undistinguished fields ambled down the stretch but unlike at the Big A or some of the rougher northern track crowds, they didn’t boo the beaten favorites or berate the losing jockeys afterwards. There weren’t many frills, there were hardly any good horses and nobody was getting rich, but it was fun.
The real key to the growth behind the Tampa Bay Downs success story was not the bucolic scene that I described. Now remember that the huge recent success of Oaklawn and the Kentucky tracks has been fueled by a massive influx of slot machine money (or the official name, HHR machines). It’s been the nuts and bolts simulcast signal and the full fields of competitive races (especially the turf racing) that captured the national simulcast bettors fancy, which has driven the Tampa Bay Downs bus. With stagnant foal crop numbers, Tampa like most tracks, struggles around the edges to keep that field size strong but a glance at their cards this winter and things still look good especially relative to other jurisdictions. Today they are running a maiden special weight race for a $32,000 purse that the defending Eclipse award winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, is running a $750,000 yearling first time starter in. Also in that race another huge NY outfit, Chris Clement has a $500,000 purchase making his debut. The biggest owner in the world, Godolphin has a pair of its horses in that same race as well. No more maiden $7500 horses to be found.
Minaret Stakes $50,000 6 furlongs 4&up fillies/mares
Drifaros - Lightly raced filly comes into this one on a three race winning streak including sharp score 20 days ago in a tough nw2x allowance at GP. She has speed and Centeno needs to use it early to get position with other speed type, My Destiny drawn directly outside her. Has done nothing but improve on figs, the question mark is the short turnaround though last summer at the Jersey shore she ran excellent on the three weeks rest.
My Destiny - Perhaps the speed of the speed, she is on a four race win streak though against a cut below top company, her stakes win at Delta Downs in her latest was her best effort thus far. I’d guess a slight regression here as she won’t steal away on the lead too far but keep an eye on how the earlier races play out and adjust her chances accordingly.
Music City Star - Blinkers back on after even try in the Rampart at GP in the last off the claim. Cuts back from a mile to the 6f but she hasn’t been in good form for awhile and when she was, running on the lead was her style. Not a fan here.
Night Cap - Ran a clunker in this stake last year as the 9/5 favorite for the late Bobby Raymond. Was claimed for 32k in her seasons debut off of a long layoff on January 14 by Bennett who has won a million races at this track. She didn’t run well in the last outing but was also in the hands of a 7% trainer so improvement is expected though beating Caramel Swirl might be another story though.
Caramel Swirl - One of the fastest sprinting fillies in America only made two starts last season. In her first she benefitted from a clever ride by Jose Lezcano to capture and allowance race at Belmont before running a good second to 2022 Filly sprint Eclipse award winner Goodnight Olive in the Grade I Ballerina in her last. She towers over these in pretty much every regard but this is a starting point, not a destination and 6f is a bit short for her. The likeliest of likely winners but I’m a bit wary at taking 2/5.
Zainalarab - Walsh has been dynamite over the years when shipping to Tampa but this mare doesn’t come with much chance here
She’s Peachy Keen - The “other Bennett” seems a level below these (3 levels below Caramel Swirl)
Olivia Darling - Trainer got the magic wand out off the trainer change but he’d have to be David Blaine or the original Oscar Barrera to win this one
Pink Shoelaces - If this was Pink Shoes perhaps, alas it’s not.
Sun Coast Stakes $150,000 1 mile 40 yards 3yo fillies
Wonder Wheel - The two year filly champ is known as Wagon Wheel on the Going In Circles podcast and she certainly looms as the one to beat in what is becoming a top 3 yo filly stakes (helloooooo graded stakes committee). This crop has been pokey thus far but two of the best show up here after 2022 3 year old champ Nest used it as a launching point last season. The main advantages that Wonder Wheel has in this spot is her professional attitude which gives Tyler Gafflione options (not a lot of young horses can win back to back grade 1 races on the lead or coming from 11th as WW did last Fall), her tactical speed that her main rival lacks and the fact that she has run the consistently fastest figs for her division. These types are always a bit more vulnerable in their comeback races but she rates a big chance.
Opus Forty Two - Improving filly is 2 for 2 over the surface after capturing the Gasparilla stakes last out in early January. Pedigree suggests the stretch out is within her capability, Delacour is a gaudy 9-16 when stretching from a sprint to a route and her fig are trending in the right direction, albeit not at the top pair’s level yet. If she is around 12-1 you’d be well served tossing her onto your deeper tickets.
Charlie’s Wish - Another filly on the improve that looks to be a level behind Wonder Wheel and Julia Shining. Might have been best in the Gasparilla as she was hung very wide on the turn and gamely grinded down the stretch to just miss. She may have benefitted more from the pace dynamics in that spot than Opus Forty Two and closing sprinters are always more leery to me stretching out than tactical speed horses but if you wanna beat the chalk, the Gasparilla pair might be the way to go.
Champagne Calling - Empire Maker filly isn’t that much different than the previous two though she is still lacking experience and has a bigger leap on figs to make. I’d give her like a 2% chance to win and you probably won’t get 50-1 so she is probably undervalued.
Dreaming of Snow - She looks to be several cuts below the top fillies here and is probably dreaming of an easier spot.
Guns N’ Graces - You don’t often get a chance to say this about Chad Brown entrant’s in stakes races but she appears to have no chance.
Fast Tracked - Seems too slow and the only real positive is Delacour’s freaky stretch out stats.
Ticker Tape Home - Turf filly switches to the dirt against champion stablemate….not for me. If Casse is standing in the winners circle with her he won’t be smiling. If she is gonna ever get a parade thrown for her, it will be in Toronto not Oldsmar.
Julia Shining - Immensely talented Curlin filly (full sister to dual champion Malathaat) following in the footsteps of stablemate of Nest has proved to be her own handicap thus far in her brief career. After a bizarre maiden win at Keeneland where she was in immediately in retreat at the beginning of the race when hit in the face with dirt, she surged by the field after jockey Saez found the middle of the track with her. Her follow up race in the Demoiselle was even rockier as again she looked in danger of being nowhere down the backside as Saez again had to shift her very wide and ride her hard down the stretch when she lugged in and just outclassed the others when winning by a narrow margin. She draws wide here which should allow Saez to miss the kickback that he would have gotten had she been inside but the question looms, can she beat better horses despite having to be very wide all the time? This is the kind of horse that players should live to play against at short odds. Not because she isn’t talented, but because until she proves otherwise, she has a major flaw that may get exposed as the waters get deeper. Hats off to her if she wins but I’d think we are more likely to get a 2021 Sam Davis race like Known Agenda put in, not a repeat of Nest last year.
Sam Davis Stakes (Gr III) $250,000 1 1/16 3yo (20 Derby pts race)
Worthington - Interesting factoid, I trained his mother and she never showed anything at all, never really coming close to winning a race. I don’t think her son will be winning today but he might be a solid 3 yo grass horse down the line, though this is not a strong field for a February Derby prep.
Prairie Hawk - ran decently in perfect trip spots over the surface. 6-1 morning line is way overvaluing him as he might have a 7-8% chance here.
Classic Legacy - crushed a suspect bunch in the mud in early December at Aqueduct. Mott won this same race in 2021 with Candy Man Rocket who was also coming in off of an easy maiden win, though a much faster one. Really has to improve off of paired 11 TG though again this isn’t a particularly deep group.
Laver - Could he fire an ace here and beat these in straight sets? Well he could and veteran Rusty Arnold is always dangerous at a long price but it’s hard to make a real solid case for him today.
Groveland - see Prairie Hawk for the fading material
Classic Car Wash - He is one giant mystery for me. Did run solid fig breaking his maiden sprinting against statebreds at GP and followed up with good trip (I think 🤷🏼♂️) win against statebred allowance company on the Tapioca at GP with a sizable figure regression. I don’t know which of those numbers is best representative of him, I haven’t figured out how to compare Tapeta and dirt figs in cases like this and I will almost assuredly just toss him out and if he wins, I turn the page.
Dubyuhnell - made major leap forward when gamely winning the Remsen in his last over a sloppy Aqueduct surface. That races form seemed to hold up when the runner up, Withers favorite Artic Arrogance, just got beat a nose again in the Jerome. Gargan had to improvise training, due to the Palm Meadows Training center surface issues, by sending him cross town to Palm Beach Training center to stretch his legs in an easy final prep for this. His 1.5 TG almost looks comical compared to the rest of the group but he surely isn’t cranked up too high as this is just the start of his derby preparations and his two wins did come on sloppy surfaces. He SHOULD win but despite the huge figure advantage, there are some questions as well.
Notah - Means ‘No Sir’ in Sam Davis language.
Champions Dream - should appreciate the stretch out to two turns and is a graded stakes winner though the 2022 Nashua should have been downgraded before the field finished galloping out. At 9-2 I’d rather spend my cash betting Super Bowl props like over/under on the length of the national anthem (over).
Dreaming of Kona - If they put a track in Hawaii, I will come out of retirement and set up an operation there. Despite the low profile connections and pedigree that doesn’t exactly scream two turns, he has been consistent and faster than most here. Legacy Isle and Lord Miles being terrible last week in the Holy Bull really doesn’t help though and I won’t use him on top but I always root for the little guy.
Litigate - Blame colt has done little wrong in two races, pairing 7.5 TG figs and should also appreciate the added distance. Perhaps a wide trip looms but this isn’t murders row, Saez is Saez and it’s hard to muster up much excitement about the vast majority of the rest of the field. Wasn’t flattered by Cyclone Mischiefs ‘no-show’ in the Holy Bull but unlike that one, this colt figures to move forward from his initial experience against winners. You aren’t getting 5-1.
Zydeceaux - Name more appropriate for a Fair Grounds Derby prep. He is a solid colt by the underrated Cajun Breeze but appears up against it from the far outside post.
Withers Stakes (Gr III) $250,000 1 1/8 3yo (20 Derby pts race)
Artic Arrogance - He is fast and has a lot of positive attributes such as tactical speed and grit. Drawing the rail is a positive as he should be able to control his position into that first turn, which may turn into a scramble with quite a bit of speed signed on. My chief concerns with him is a question about his really wanting the 9 furlongs and is regression imminent? He has paired 3’s which is fast for this time of the year and this is race number 6 since September. He is a deserving favorite, he won’t be a surpise winner, but I’m not all in by any means.
Prove Right - I will never understand spending money entering horses like this in these type of races. He has potential to press the pace or be on the lead, just don’t be behind him when he starts to fade.
Jungfrau - Mott sends him back north off of maiden win that looks a little less impressive when the DQ’ed winner, Expect More, came back and lost at odds on again. Perhaps the 9 furlongs, potential swift pace and improvement gives him a punchers chance at hitting the board but you should probably demand a decent price.
Hit Show - Cox trainee made big jump to run a 4.75 TG in his latest, an allowance win over a middling field at OP. He is about as likely to regress as he is to move forward BUT his style of running may be flattered by an expected quick pace. Short prices suck for these type of horses but they win an annoying % of times these days.
General Banker - Another that figures to benefit from a good early set up. Has run very solid figs when pairing mid 6 TG’s but he has already made a lot of progress from where he started last July and I don’t know how much he has left. I can’t say for certain that 9 furlongs will be ideal with his pedigree but I will likely use him if he is 8-1 or higher?
Ninetypercentmaddie - This colts sire Weigelia has terrible numbers in route races of any quality. Just a pace factor period.
Andiamo A Firenze - Little to suggest he will be anything other than a pace chaser.
Flameaway beating Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso in the 2018 Sam Davis
Ricardo Lopez was the King there in the 80’s
Bring your 500,000 sale horses ,Graded Stakes Horses and top country riders /trainers and trainers G. Bennett, Delacour, Hardy. Delgado and Tampa Riders..,,,,,,will beat you ass on Their Race TRack!