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Edited Tampa Bay Press Release — When he arrived at Tampa Bay Downs last fall, trainer Gregg Sacco thought his then-2-year-old colt Freedom Road might be a candidate for the Grade III, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of Saturday’s Festival Day 43 card at Tampa Bay Downs.

And even though he has competed only once at the meet, winning a 6-furlong allowance/optional claiming race on Jan. 21, Freedom Road has done nothing to change Sacco’s opinion.

“He’s come out of each of his workouts since then better and better, and as far as his fitness and energy levels go he is right on cue,” said Sacco, who trains the son of Malibu Moon out of Lovable Lady, by Not For Love, for partners Pinnacle Racing Team and Madaket Stables.

“The Tampa Bay Derby is a very prestigious race, and we’ll be honored and privileged to be a part of it,” Sacco said. “I feel that if he displays the same strong kick he has sprinting, he will be competitive. He’s got the home-court advantage and he’ll be able to walk over from his own barn.

“It looks like there are going to be a lot of talented horses running, and a lot of unknowns. But you’ve got to take a swing in the batter’s box to connect,” Sacco added. “If he runs to our expectations it opens up a wide range of races for us, and if he doesn’t, we know we have a talented sprinter.”

Now 2-for-5 from five starts, with a second and a third last October in the Laurel Futurity, Freedom Road is one of at least 10 3-year-olds expected for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, a major “Road to the Kentucky Derby” prep race awarding 50 Run for the Roses qualifying points to the winner and 20, 15, 10 and 5 to the next four finishers.

The quest for Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve points, combined with the fact that each of the likely starters will be facing the toughest tests of their young careers, guarantees the eyes of the Thoroughbred racing world will be trained on the Oldsmar oval late Saturday afternoon.

The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby is one of five stakes races – four of them graded – worth a combined $1-million in purse money.

The card also includes the Grade II, $225,000 Hillsborough Stakes, for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks, for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; the Grade III, $100,000 Michelob Ultra Challenger Stakes, for horses 4-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track; and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes, for 3-year-olds at a mile on the turf.

While the winner of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby will join the Kentucky Derby trail in full force, most if not all of the others will be forced to regroup. The ‘unknown” factor is heightened upon consideration that only one of the probable entrants, trainer Ramon Minguet’s Zydeceaux, has won three races.

The Florida-bred Zydeceaux captured the 7-furlong Pasco Stakes here on Jan. 14, then set the pace to the far turn in the Grade III, mile-and-a-sixteenth Sam F. Davis Stakes here on Feb. 11 before finishing fifth, three-and-a-quarter lengths behind winner Litigate.

That Todd Pletcher-trained colt is being pointed toward the Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 25, but the Hall of Fame conditioner won’t be empty-handed for Tampa Bay Downs’s premier event. He is expected to enter two Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby runners on Wednesday: Whisper Hill Farm and Gainesway Stable’s Tapit Trice and Robert V. LaPenta’s Shesterkin, the 1-2 finishers in a Feb. 4 allowance/optional claiming, 1-mile race at Gulfstream Park.

Tapit Trice finished 8 lengths clear of his stablemate, and some handicappers are speculating he will be favored to give Pletcher his sixth Tampa Bay Derby triumph.

Others expected to enter at Press time included the second-through-fourth-place finishers in the Sam F. Davis: trainer Eoin Harty’s Groveland, Mark Casse’s gelding Classic Car Wash and Bill Mott’s Classic Legacy; Zydeceaux; trainer Saffie A. Joseph, Jr.’s colts Prairie Hawk, unplaced in the Sam F. Davis, and West Coast Cowboy, third in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream; and trainer Tim Hamm’s gelding Mikey Bananas, second here on Feb. 12 in an allowance/optional claiming event in his most recent start.

Sacco’s belief that Freedom Road belongs was strengthened by his 4-furlong breeze Saturday in 48 1/5 seconds under Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., who was aboard for his maiden score on July 23 at Monmouth and will ride him Saturday.

“We’ve had this race in mind since he won in January, and the spacing between that race and each of his workouts has him right on target,” Sacco said. “He has done nothing wrong in any of his races. In the 1-mile Sapling at Monmouth (Aug. 27, a fifth-place finish going two turns), he was rank early and didn’t really settle, but he ran steady through the wire and didn’t give an indication he couldn’t go two turns.”

Given his breeding (deceased Malibu Moon sired 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb and more than 100 stakes winners, while dam Lovable Lady won three stakes and almost $400,000), Freedom Road was a real bargain at the 2022 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s March Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training. He was picked out by Sacco’s son and assistant, Will, for Michael Ravallo’s Pinnacle Racing Team, and purchased for $20,000, with Sol Kumin’s Madaket Stables buying in after his 2-year-old campaign.

The Hillsborough Stakes is likely to bring back the top three finishers from the Grade III Endeavour Stakes on Feb. 4: winner Surprisingly, from the barn of Claude “Shug” McGaughey, III, and second and third-place finishers Scotish Star, trained by Pletcher, and Marketsegmentation, trained by Chad Brown, who has won the race a record five times.

Brown is also expected to enter his 5-year-old, Grade I-winning Ireland-bred mare Shantisara and French-bred 5-year-old mare Rougir. Also expected are trainer Brendan Walsh’s 7-year-old Temple City Terror, winner of back-to-back Grade III stakes to conclude 2022. Trainer Cherie DeVaux could enter her 5-year-old, multiple-Grade III winner Gam’s Mission and/or 5-year-old Perseverancia.

The Florida Oaks is expected to bring together 10 or 11 3-year-old fillies, with Free Look, trained by Brown, among the top candidates. She was second in October in the Grade II Miss Grillo Stakes and a creditable fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in November at Keeneland.

Brown has won the past two runnings of the Florida Oaks.

Alpha Bella, trained by Pletcher, as well as H. Graham Motion’s Mission of Joy and McGaughey’s Allamericanbeauty, also look strong.

So does Dreaming of Snow, who upset Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Wonder Wheel here on Feb. 11 in the Suncoast Stakes at odds of 38-1. Can she make the transition from dirt to turf against this caliber of horse? Leading Oldsmar trainer Gerald Bennett appears ready to give her a shot.

Among those expected for the Michelob Ultra Challenger is 4-year-old colt Skippylongstocking, who finished third in last year’s Belmont Stakes and won the Grade III West Virginia Derby and the Grade III Harlan’s Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream. He is trained by Joseph, who is also expected to start The Reds.

Victoria Oliver is expected to send out her 4-year-old gelding Trademark, winner of the Commonwealth Turf Stakes in November at Churchill Downs. Other likely starters include 6-year-old Mighty Heart, the millionaire multiple graded-stakes winner trained by Patrick County, Jr.; 7-year-old gelding Tax, also a millionaire, trained by Danny Gargan; Business Model, trained by Brendan Walsh; and Surly Furious, from the barn of Glenn Wismer.

In the Columbia, Victoria Oliver appears to have a major contender in Mo Stash, who finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at odds of 51-1 after taking the lead briefly in the stretch. McGaughey is expected to start Talk of the Nation, who prepped for the Columbia with a 4-length score here on Feb. 4 on the turf.

Others expected to go include Mike Maker’s Worthington, who was unplaced in the Sam F. Davis; Freedom Trail, a stakes winner for trainer John P. Terranova, II; A Western Yarn, trained by Arnaud Delacour; and Smoke Lightening, trained by Ron G. Potts.

Around the oval. Jockey Vernon Bush did the unthinkable on today’s card, riding two 25-1 shot winners. Both first-race winner Delta Ridge, a 4-year-old gelding, and 5-year-old gelding Distorted Times, winner of the seventh on the turf, are owned by Michael H. Rhodes and trained by former jockey Jennifer Quinones, who competed against Bush from 1978-89 at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.

Now 61, Bush seemed to be a bit disbelieving himself. “If I won one today, I was going to be ecstatic,” he said. “But to win two against this caliber of riders, it feels beyond good.” A lot of fans who didn’t cash a ticket on either horse were in full agreement.

Bush has 3,250 career victories.

With Sir Saffer’s long-shot victory in the ninth race on the turf, Kathleen O’Connell moved ever closer to becoming the all-time winningest female trainer in North American history. She has sent out 2,383 winners in her career, two fewer than Kim Hammond. O’Connell has three entered here on Wednesday’s card, while Hammond has one entered Friday at Turfway Park.

Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., rode the 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Sir Saffer for “K.O.” and breeder-owner Joseph DiBello’s DiBello Racing.

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