After catching and recovering from COVID-19 this winter, trainer Bill Mott could now be at risk of catching something much more desirable — Derby fever.
The Hall of Famer has a right to dream after his trainees in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 6 at Tampa Bay Downs, Candy Man Rocket and Nova Rags, ran 1-2 in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve qualifier. The two colts excelled in the 1 1/16-mile race, with Candy Man Rocket prevailing by a length.
Finishing third, a neck behind the runner-up, was BBN Racing's Hidden Stash, trained by Vicki Oliver. That 3-year-old, along with the Mott pair, delivered a sweep of the top positions for Payson Park-stabled colts.
For a 3-year-old who never raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs and was coming off a blowout victory in a six-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park Jan. 9, Candy Man Rocket showed no difficulty handling a stretch out in distance. Wide into the first of two turns, he chased frontrunning Boca Boy, the race's eventual fourth-place finisher, through quarter-mile splits of :23.35, :46.94, and 1:10.80 before asserting himself over the final five-sixteenths of the race. He pulled ahead in early stretch, increased his lead to 2 1/2 lengths with a furlong to go, and held on while seeming to idle under Junior Alvarado.
The son of Candy Ride , owned by Flank Fletcher Racing Operations, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.30 with a sluggish final sixteenth timed in :7.08. His final time was the slowest in the Sam. F. Davis since Vinceremos was clocked in 1:47.34 in 2014.
"He doesn't have a real quick turn of foot, but he started grinding it out so I started picking it up and was really pleased by the quarter pole turning for home," said Alvarado. "At the sixteenth pole when I switched my stick to the right and showed it to him to see what I had left, he put his head low and kept grinding his way there."
Michael Shanley's Nova Rags, who raced inside of the winner, also in a stalking position early, cut into his stablemate's stretch lead but was never a significant threat to catch him. Saturday's race was his second local start after he had won the Jan. 16 Pasco Stakes at Tampa.
Riley Mott, the trainer's son and assistant, was pleased with bolt colts.
Candy Man Rocket "hit the front a little bit early, which was concerning—he's still inexperienced and sometimes when they get to the front too early, they tend to wander," he said. "Junior kept him to the task and he really ran on well and passed the two-turn test.
"Nova Rags is a quality horse, he sat a good trip too and has some speed himself. We weren't sure about the two turns, so to see him come back and pass the two-turn test and run so well to a good horse and his stablemate was pretty encouraging."
The 3-2 favorite, Known Agenda, who was bidding to give trainer Todd Pletcher a seventh Sam F. Davis victory, passed tired runners to be fifth after losing touch with the leaders early.
The Sam. F. Davis provided qualifying points toward the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on a 10-4-2-1 basis to the race's top four finishers. The Sam F. Davis typically serves as a prep for the $400,000 Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby Mar. 6.
Mott previously won the Tampa Bay Derby with Tacitus (2019) and Zede (1997).
Candy Man Rocket ($8.20), bred in Kentucky by Robert S. Evans, is the first stakes winner from five foals to race out of the Forestry mare Kenny Lane. The dam, who recorded her two victories sprinting on turf, also has a 2-year-old Orb colt named Notacry and an unnamed Tonalist yearling filly.
The winner has earnings of $144,824 by winning two of three starts. His one defeat came in his debut when he was seventh over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs last fall. He was purchased by his owner for $250,000 from the Six K's Training & Sales consignment at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's 2020 Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training.