By Ed McNamara
It’s a city with everything: great weather year-round, beautiful beaches, excellent restaurants, a nice zoo and big-league sports.
Tampa teams have been on a roll in recent years, with the Bucs winning a Super Bowl, the Lightning taking back-to-back Stanley Cups, and the Rays winning an American League pennant. For horseplayers, there’s an attractive track only 16 miles outside of town.
Tampa Bay Downs, the 97-year-old hippodrome on Florida’s West Coast, has been gaining prestige this century. Big-time trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Mark Casse run there, and the turf course in Oldsmar is considered one of the best in the country. It’s still a distant second to Florida’s top track, Gulfstream Park, but Tampa Bay Downs‘ big fields and competitive racing have put it on bettors’ radar.
Its major Kentucky Derby prep, the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, has produced some name horses. Only one of its winners, Street Sense (2007), also took the Derby, but two Pletcher horses made a splash in the Triple Crown. Tapwrit (2017) hit the Tampa Bay Derby-Belmont Stakes double. The year before, Destin won Tampa’s big race and fell a nose short in the Belmont. In 2019, Tacitus dominated the Tampa Bay Derby before winning the Wood Memorial, finishing third in the Derby and second in the Belmont.
Pletcher ran 1-2 in the 2016 Tampa Bay Derby, which coincided with my only visit to Oldsmar. I bet on the wrong Pletcher, runner-up Outwork, owned by Mike Repole, a longtime collaborator of Todd’s. “I don’t like running against Todd,” Repole told me after the race. “I got beat by my own trainer.”
I shared his pain.
The local prep for the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby is Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis, a Grade 3 that tops a four-stakes card. Let’s see if I can help you cash a few tickets.
Nightcap (2) has the best early speed, a 5-for-5 record on fast tracks, and two wins at the distance. Feeling Mischief (4) is 2-for-4 at Tampa, including a stakes win at 6 furlongs in late 2020. Poseidon’s Passion (5) ran third in this race last year and comes off two sharp turf sprints.
Baby Yoda (3) couldn’t be taking a bigger class drop. He just chased the otherworldly sprinter Flightline when a very distant second (beaten 11 lengths) in the Grade 1 Malibu. Pudding (5) is a horse for course (4-for-9 at Tampa) and finished in the money in nine of his last 10. Bank On Shea (4), a two-time stakes winner against New York-breds, could improve off a decent fourth after an 8 1/2-month layoff.
Grade 2 Demoiselle winner Nest (2) looks like a strong favorite for Pletcher and Irad Ortiz, Jr. She can stalk and close well, and she’s less than a length away from being 3-for-3. Peaceful Surprise (6) made a powerful late surge at Tampa last time to win her career debut. Christophe Clement shows confidence by moving her immediately into a stakes. Ha’ Penny (7) stretches out after an even fourth in a 7-furlong stakes at Tampa.
$250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Classic Causeway (3) was the 7-5 favorite when he ran a strong second to highly regarded Smile Happy on Nov. 27 in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Juvenile. Son of Giant’s Causeway faces no one of that caliber here, and he’s training impressively for Brian Lynch. Golden Glider (4) showed nice finishing kicks in his only two starts, both routes, for Mark Casse, and could capitalize on a likely strong pace. God of Love (5), one of three trained by Casse, makes his main-track debut after winning stakes on synthetic and turf at Woodbine.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.