Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Little Tampa Bay Puts on Big Time Show

Even if for one day--with Aqueduct staging a Gotham all-stakes Pick 4 and Santa Anita, with its all graded-stakes Pick 3, two G1s and the San Felipe--it was the little track that could, Tampa Bay Downs, which put on the deepest card in the U.S. and best in its history.

There’s no getting away from the fact that two most talented three-year-olds of the weekend; three if Justify’s allowance tour de force on Sunday is included—all appeared in Southern California.

But Tampa Bay’s All-Stakes Pick 5--beginning with the listed Columbia and ending with the Tampa Derby, a stakes sandwich that also included classy, hard-hitting War Story and the G2 Hillsborough, G3 Florida Oaks at 15%, was the day’s best super-exotics fare.

Of course, none of it would have been possible if not for an assist from SoFlo-based runners shipping north to Pinellas County. The high class program began quickly, the early buzz created by the debut of a million-dollar Ocala Breeders’ breeze-up graduate, Ruler of the Nile.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, the Pioneer of the Nile bay was scheduled to debut two weeks ago at Gulfstream Park. However, the colt ran off in the post parade, unseated Johnny Velazquez, was order scratched before finding a 7-furlong sprint to his liking in Oldsmar.

Minding his manners this time, Ruler of the Nile ran off and hid from five rivals by 7-1/4 ridden-out lengths, racing 7 furlongs in 1:23.57. Obviously, the future appears bright…

Nile rules the Riviera

One race later, Sister Sunday, bred at the Steinbrenner family’s Florida-based Kinsman Farm, broke her maiden going 1-1/16 miles on turf in 1:40.03, overcoming a troubled start with an excellent turn of foot into the stretch under expert Leparoux handling.

Christophe Clement’s trainee dispatched a well meant Chad Brown favorite, troubled strong-finishing first-timer Mighty Scarlett, by 4-1/4 lengths. ‘Scarlett’ will not remain a maiden for very long and there appears to be stakes in Sister Sunday’s future.

Pletcher came back to take the Columbia Stakes with a future graded stakes turf performer, Gidu, a gray son of Frankel. He nearly won the G3 Dania Beach previously, beaten a head despite racing way too keenly throughout the running.

Showing high speed early again, this time he rated more kindly, stalking from close range, before taking command after straightening away and kicking clear quickly, holding a very promising group without fear of late danger.

Runnerup Captivating Moon, obstreperous at the gate, raced well back early, tipped wide after entering the straight and finished briskly. Show finisher Smart Remark, between horses virtually throughout, came outside to challenge and stayed very well in a promising season’s debut.

War Story and Irad conquer their Challengers
After War Story’s much-best romp, six-year-old New York-bred mare Fourstar Crook made the last run under Irad Ortiz Jr. a winning one, nailing Proctor’s Ledge and brother Jose in the last jump.

No one in America is riding with more confidence than Irad is at the moment and Brown had his mare spot on for her first run since Woodbine’s G1 soft-course E.P. Taylor.

Behind the top two, in order, came excuse-free La Coronel, Daddys Lil Darling, and Off Limits. Before the race, Ken McPeek offered that the G2 Hillsborough should become a Grade 1 just based on Saturday’s field.

We couldn’t agree with McPeek more, but selection committee politics ultimately will decide. The Hillsborough has been a terrific horse race year after year.

Tom Albertrani is on a roll. After getting Sadler’s Joy to win off the bench at Gulfstream Park, he wisely yanked Andina Del Sur off that speed-kind lawn, shipped her to one of America’s best turf courses, named Leparoux, and won the G3 Florida Oaks. Good job.

Original announcer booth at 16th pole

First Tampa Derby was called by this man
At 19-1, Quip didn’t have many believers going into the Tampa Derby despite a promising if unproven slate. He romped in his two-turn debut at Keeneland following a sprint win first out at Churchill then virtually lost all chance when troubled in the key Jockey Club Stakes to conclude his season, yet still beat half the field.

Prepared at Fair Grounds, his connections chose the Tampa for his three-year-old debut and, while it is true that the brilliant World of Trouble didn’t stay, the fact that Quip chased him throughout, wore the leader down and held off Sam Davis hero Flameaway was a tribute to the horse and the confidence displayed by his connects.

After some R & R at Winstar Farm over the winter, newcomer Rodolphe Brisset shipped into Tampa, breezed a sharp half-mile over the surface then handled a seasoned group with prior surface experience. Such youthful confidence is rare. We’re taking a wait-and-see on his Derby viability but it’s that this is a talented son of Distorted Humor.

In all, fans came from miles around to see the Tampa Derby card. The trackside dining room was oversold, with over 300 people sitting in close quarters in a relatively small space.

But there was not a single seat in the entire track unoccupied, One patron who arrived in mid-card told me he parked outside the racetrack exactly one-half mile from the finish line.

Saturday’s was a large, well comported crowd of 10,236 fans who accounted for $821,546 of track handle, the low per capita total by virtue of a family-centric atmosphere replete with youngsters. That is strong, considering there was a major golf tournament and Formula One race in the area this weekend.

But simulcast players sure noticed. Handle from all-sources on 12 races reached $13,234,037, a number that could become routine should the level of quality for its signature event be maintained. And that’s not counting Tampa’s poker room receipts.

Quip: Short on experience, long on ability

Given its success, Tampa could re-invest some of the proceeds. There’s no need to change its welcoming, old school atmosphere but surely some amenities could be added; e.g. more dining space. But the food and service was first rate.

Every employee we encountered could not have been more pleasant, or accommodating. And considering that many of the per diem employees work more than one job there, that’s nothing to take for granted. They helped make it a great day at the races.

OLDSMAR FL, March 12, 2018
Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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