Mark Casse admits he was having some second thoughts.
Despite the fact his charge Flameaway earned two of his three stakes wins on the dirt, the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer wasn’t fully convinced life on the main track would be where the son of Scat Daddy would ultimately make his best mark.
Under some prodding from owner John Oxley, Casse gave in to some Kentucky Derby fever and put his chestnut colt in the $250,000, Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs against heavy favorite Catholic Boy. After watching Flameaway show his mettle in outdueling the Remsen Stakes winner in the stretch, Casse is happy to say the boss — as usual — knew best.
“I would say I was kind of wishy-washy about trying him on dirt, and Mr. Oxley said ‘Can we do it one more time?’ ” Casse explained. “He is the boss, so I said ‘Of course.’ ”
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
One order of business Oxley may have in the near future is writing a check for $6,000 by March 19 in order to include Flameaway among the late nominees to the Triple Crown series. The Ontario-bred colt has forced his way into the classic conversation when he fought back after being headed by Catholic Boy at the eighth pole to earn a half-length victory in the Sam F. Davis.
Though Flameaway came into the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis off a victory in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf on Jan. 6, his best outings had come on a dirt surface. In his second career start, he captured an off-the-turf Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga Race Course last Aug. 18. Two outings later, he took an off-the-turf edition of the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland — a race that earned him a spot in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, where he finished eighth.
Which surface is best for him may still have been up for debate, but one thing Casse was certain of was how much Flameaway loved a good fight. He backed that up Saturday when he won the break to take the six-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in :24.18 as Vino Rosso, Septimius Severus, and Catholic Boy bunched up behind him.
When he left the half-mile in :47.73, Flameaway had Septimius Severus ranging up to his hip approaching the turn only to have that one throw in the towel once Catholic Boy surged up three wide with his bid for the lead. Catholic Boy seemed poised to back up his 7-10 favoritism when he gained a short advantage in the final furlong only to be thwarted by Flameaway unearthering a little more on the inside to snatch 10 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
“He’s a fighter. If you’ve ever watched him, you’ve seen that,” Casse said. “With the track playing a little fast today, I told [jockey] Jose [Lezcano] he was going to like this track. The one thing about him is, if he gets in a battle, he’s going to win the battle. As long as the track is fairly firm, I think he’ll run on anything.”
Sent off at 10.30-1 odds, Flameaway earned another accolade as he crossed the finish line with his final time of 1:42.44 representing a new stakes record.
“I would say there is a good chance [to return for the Grade 2, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 10], but it’s something I have to talk to Mr. Oxley about,” Casse added.
In his first effort since winning the Dec. 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in his dirt debut, Catholic Boy very likely kept himself on track for a start in the Grade 1 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park March 31.
“I really need to watch the race again, but I thought it was a big effort giving [as much as] six pounds,” said Jonathan Thomas, trainer of Catholic Boy. “I’m happy because it was a good effort. I just need to see it again and digest the race.”
Bred by Phoenix Rising Farms, out of the Fusaichi Pegasus mare Vulcan Rose, Flameaway has five wins from seven starts with $434,834 in earnings.