The Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday is the steppingstone to the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby next month, and the 1 1/16-mile race offers “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points to the top four finishers. Knicks Go leads the field in terms of accomplishments, having won the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last October. He then had a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile one month later, followed by an 11th-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to close out his juvenile campaign. Knicks Go has been training at Tampa Bay Downs and hopes to rebound to graded stakes winning form in his 3-year-old debut. The other two previous stakes winners in the field are Five Star General, winner of the Central Park Stakes, and In Reality Stakes winner Well Defined, both having earned those stakes wins last fall. Cave Run and Kentucky Wildcat both come from the powerful Godolphin operation but have different trainers. Cave Run tries two turns for the first time following a third-place finish in the Pasco Stakes over this track last month in only the second start of his career, while Kentucky Wildcat enters the Sam F. Davis on an improving pattern and following a win at a mile in December. So Alive and Counter Offer step into stakes ranks for the first time following a one-two finish in an allowance race over this track. Still Dreaming earned his first win at a mile last month and is another lightly raced horse trying to improve and make his mark in the 3-year-old ranks. Going for Gold stretches out for the first time off two sprints, both of which he led from the start until right before the finish line. Although he’s still a maiden, with blinkers being added for this race we are likely to see this gelding dart to the front and play “come catch me” as long as he can. Moonster rounds out the field and has been beaten by more than 10 lengths in each of his last four races.
Early pace scenario: With Going for Gold already having shown a need-the-lead running style in two sprint races to date and adding blinkers, there is little doubt his intentions are to go to the front, perhaps setting a pace that’s much stronger than average. Also adding blinkers for the Sam F. Davis is Well Defined, who could be a pace factor as well. Still Dreaming has raced in second in the early stages of both races to date, those held around one turn, and from the outside post it is likely he will have to use some early energy to gain a similar position which may only serve to increase the changes of a fast early pace scenario. Add to the mix Five Star General, who won the Central Park Stakes leading from start to finish in his most recent race, and there is every reason to believe all the horses with an “early” or “presser” pace style will be vulnerable to the stalkers and closers in the field.
Cave Run appears well suited to earn his first stakes win, as he closed from third to win his debut by six lengths before rallying from fifth to third in the Pasco Stakes last month. The Pasco was run at Tampa Bay Downs, and the experience of a race over this dirt track should help this colt improve, not to mention that he has tremendous breeding for two turns as his sire is 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and he is out of a mare by Bernardini. In his debut, Cave Run earned a 98 Equibase Speed Figure which is tied with the figure Knicks Go earned in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity for the second-best figure in the field. Although Cave Run earned a slightly lower figure in the Pasco, I believe the colt will move forward nicely and improve with the added distance to win the Sam F. Davis Stakes.
Kentucky Wildcat appears to be sitting on a career-best effort and, although he is just a maiden winner, he could post the slight upset in the Sam F. Davis. Following a sixth-place finish in his debut sprinting in August, Kentucky Wildcat improved markedly when sent around two turns in October, jumping from a 59 Equibase Speed Figure to an 86 figure with a third-place finish. Two months later he returned to win at a mile with a 95 figure, and he was flattered when the runner-up in that race returned to win in his next start. Kentucky Wildcat has perhaps the best breeding for the Kentucky Derby trail in the field, being a son of Tapit, sire of 2017 Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit. If he’s able to continue his pattern of improvement, Kentucky Wildcat could be a tough competitor in this race.
Knicks Go burst onto the scene last October when posting the 70-1 upset in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, leading from start to finish in a field of 13 and giving no other horse a chance while earning a 98 figure in the process. Pretty much proving that to be no fluke, one month later Knicks Go finished second to Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 40.50-1 odds with a respectable 96 figure. Off those two big efforts, Knicks Go was sent to post as the 3.10-1 favorite in the 14-horse Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in late November, but disappointed when checking in 11th with no excuse. Given two months off to mature, Knicks Go has put in three workouts at Tampa Bay Downs in the last month in preparation for this race. On Jan. 19, his half-mile workout was the best of 72 on the day and he followed that up with a best of 39 workout on Jan. 26 and a fourth-best of 64 drill on Feb. 2. Considering those three workouts as a group suggests Knicks Go is in top physical condition. As such, he could be able to run back to either of his top efforts last fall, and if that occurs he would have a say in the outcome of the Sam F. Davis.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Counter Offer (88), Going for Gold (90), Five Star General (88), Moonster (84), So Alive (88), Well Defined (111), and Still Dreaming (85).