Saturday's $250,000, Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, the local prep race for the Grade 2 Lambolm South Tampa Bay Derby four weeks from now, brings together a field of 12 (plus one also-eligible) attempting to become one of the betting favorites going into that race. They'll also earn points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Only five of the 13 have ever run in stakes races, and only two have won a stakes. Nova Rags is one of those two, having won the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last month around one turn. Boca Boy is another with a stakes win, that coming last September in the In Reality Stakes. He is returning from a 4 1/2-month layoff since that race.
Smiley Sobotka finished second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall around two-turns but is returning to the races following more than two months off and facing many who have run more recently. Known Agenda finished third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes last December and is yet another coming into the race off a layoff. Runway Magic finished third in the Limehouse Stakes last month at Gulfstream Park, a one-turn race, and he rounds out those which have competed in stakes before today. There is a trio of recent winners on dirt who could step up to the task. This includes local winner Ricochet, impressive 9 1/4-length winner Candy Man Rocket, and Hidden Stash, who is coming back from more than three months off.
Millean won his most recent race last month. However, it was in a maiden claiming race, so he may be a bit overmatched here. Joe Man Joe and Lucky Law finished second and first, respectively, in their most recent starts. Both were around two turns on turf, so it remains to be seen if they can transfer that form to dirt. Last Investment and also-eligible Tiz Tact Toe round out the field as horses who have yet to break their maidens in seven combined starts.
Candy Man Rocket gets slight preference among three main win contenders in this year’s Sam F. Davis Stakes, although he has never raced around two turns and has only a maiden win to his credit. I think this colt has tremendous upside, based on earning a field-high 98 Equibase Speed Figure in his 9 1/4-length maiden win last month sprinting at Gulfstream Park. Considering this will be only his third career start, Candy Man Rocket has every right to continue to improve. If he simply repeats his last effort, his opponents would have to improve doubly in order to beat him.
There is little doubt Candy Man Rocket can do just that around two turns as a son of Candy Ride, whose has had 12 of his 34 foals win stakes races for 3-year-olds over the last five years, including Vekoma and Gun Runner. Then there’s the prowess his Hall-of-Fame trainer has in recognizing talent. Over the last five years, when Bill Mott runs a horse off a maiden win to a stakes race, he's finished first or second in 10 of 20 tries. All those factors lead me to believe Candy Man Rocket can pull off the upset in this race.
Mott also saddles Nova Rags, one of just two stakes winners in the field. Nova Rags returned from two months off last month and won the Pasco Stakes at seven furlongs. Although his 85 Equibase Speed Figure is well behind the 98 figure his stablemate earned one week earlier, Nova Rags has every right to improve second off the layoff and around two turns. Sired by 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Nova Rags is out of the Smart Strike mare Wishful Splendor, whose sons and daughters have won 17 of 73 dirt route races, including 2011 Indiana Oaks winner Juanita. Nova Rags can take a big step forward in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and toss his name into the ring as a top 3-year-old on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Tampa Bay's leading jockey Samy Camacho is in the saddle.
Ricochet has won around two turns at Tampa, a claim none of the other 12 horses in this race can make. Stretched out to two turns for the first time at the end of November, Ricochet opened up by 2 1/2 lengths in the stretch only to be nailed right on the wire by a head. Next out, Ricochet made short work of the field in December when winning by 8 1/4 lengths., improving to a career-best 94 figure. On a pattern for another step forward, if Candy Man Rocket does not improve as expected, Ricochet would be no surprise winning this race.
After that group of three, there are four more which deserve honorable mention – Hidden Stash, Known Agenda, Lucky Law and Smiley Sobotka, each having good reasons to consider them as contenders but each also with slight question marks. Hidden Stash improved to a career best 89 figure when last seen at the end of November, bringing his record around two turns to a perfect two-for-two. However, coming back from two months off, he would need to be in tip-top shape to pick up where he left off. Known Agenda won a 1 1/8-mile race in November, the second start of his career, defeating recent Holy Bull Stakes winner Greatest Honour and earning an 85 figure in the process. He improved to 88 when he was a well-beaten third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes in December and if this was his second start off a layoff, not his first, I think he would be a top contender. Similarly, Smiley Sobotka improved nicely in his first route and second career start in October to win. He then finished second of nine in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (with a 90 figure) after opening up by a couple of lengths with an eighth of a mile to go. He’s been working fast, but there is always the concern about needing a race before running well enough to win around two turns off a layoff. Lucky Law stretched out to two turns off a runner-up effort and won nicely last month. Both races were on turf so he would need to transfer that form to dirt and improve off the 83 figure earned in that last start. However, trainer Patrick Biancone successfully transitioned horses to dirt on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve last year with both Ete Indien and Sole Volante.
The rest of the field, all who have the ability to compete effectively in this race with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Boca Boy (78), Joe Man Joe (83), Millean (84), Last Investment (81), Tiz Tact Toe (78) and Runway Magic (92).
Win Contenders, in probability order:
Candy Man Rocket