View From The Eighth Pole: ‘The Saratoga Of The South’

They don’t write races at 1 1/16 miles and a few jumps. If they did, Vino Rosso might have gotten the money and 10 Kentucky Derby points in Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Officially, the Curlin colt got just two Derby points while winding up third, beaten 1 ¼ lengths by a game Flameaway, who fought off odds-on favorite Catholic Boy the length of the stretch to win by a half length.

Vino Rosso spent most of the trip under jockey John Velazquez chasing the wire-to-wire winner while between horses. He fell back on the turn, then had clear sailing the length of the stretch when swung to the outside. The chestnut colt didn’t really accelerate until the final 50 yards when his action seemed to change and he began striding out with more enthusiasm. A few jumps past the wire Vino Rosso was in front.

The next day, Todd Pletcher told TVG’s Caton Bredar that Velazquez suggested it was time to try blinkers on Vino Rosso and the current plan was to bring the colt back for the G2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10. He’ll need a win there to earn 50 Kentucky Derby points and ensure a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Vino Rosso came into the Sam F. Davis with victories in an Aqueduct maiden contest Nov. 11 and a Tampa Bay allowance race Dec. 22 in his only two starts.

You can almost mark it down today that Pletcher and Vino Rosso will win the 2018 Tampa Bay Derby. Vino Rosso looks like a colt with upside and his trainer said he figures to improve as the distances get longer (he’s out of the Street Cry mare, Mythical Bride, who is a half sister to the dam of Belmont Stakes runner-up and WinStar Farm sire Commissioner). Pletcher’s won the last three runnings of the Tampa Bay Derby and four of the last five (Verrazano in 2013, Carpe Diem in ’15, Destin in ’16 and Tapwrit in ’17). He also chose Tampa Bay Downs to launch the 2017 campaign of eventual Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who broke his maiden there in January.

Going back to 2007, when Carl Nafzger used the Tampa Bay Derby as a springboard to winning the Kentucky Derby with 2-year-old champion Street Sense, the little track on Florida’s west coast has gained national prominence. In addition to the Sam F. Davis, Saturday’s card featured the victorious return in the G3 Tampa Bay Stakes of World Approval, the 2017 male turf champion; Dona Bruja, a top turf mare, who went wire to wire to win the G3 Endeavour Stakes; and a solid group of 3-year-old fillies in the ungraded Suncoast Stakes, won by Dale Romans-trained C.S. Incharge.

A total of $9.5 million was handled on Saturday’s 12-race card, billed as Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. Roy Lermon’s Florida-based Lambholm South breeding and training operation is the former Hobeau Farm of the late Jack Dreyfus, whose top runners included Beau Purple, Onion and Prove Out.

Less than $500,000 of Saturday’s total handle was wagered on-track, which goes to show how popular the Tampa Bay signal has become with simulcast players over the years.

It’s a business that track owner Stella Thayer and Peter Berube, vice president and general manager, have built up by trying to offer big fields, competitive racing and fair prices. Tampa Bay Downs currently ranks ninth nationally in the Horseplayers Association of North America track ratings that look at a variety of factors, including takeout and field size.

The on-track vibe is nice, too. I like to call it the Saratoga of the South because of the casual family atmosphere and the opportunity for fans to get so close to the horses as they are led in front of the grandstand to the saddling paddock at the top of the stretch. I’m told there’s a nice indoor dining room, but for me there’s no better way to spend a pleasant afternoon than to grab a freshly made deli sandwich, a cold beverage and a grandstand seat with a terrific view. There’s a touch of Keeneland at Tampa Bay Downs, too, with the rows of neatly arranged benches on the track apron. Employees are friendly and helpful.

Though Saturday’s on-track crowd of 5,147 bet less than $100 each ($490,837.20 was bet on-track), the fans seem knowledgeable and are respectful and enthusiastic. It’s a mixture of snowbirds from up north, retirees and young families bringing their kids out to see the horses and jockeys.

It wasn’t always that way, as trainer Dale Romans reminded me on Saturday. For decades, Florida law forbade minors inside the gates of any racetrack in the state.

“When I was a little kid, and my Dad (Jerry Romans) had horses here, I used to watch the races through that fence up there,” Romans said, pointing toward the top of the stretch.

The track, now part of an endless suburb north of Tampa, was built on what, at the time, was undeveloped land.

“There didn’t used to be anything up here – just the racetrack and a flea market,” Romans continued. “Dad took us over to the flea market one year and we got a little puppy that was just loaded with fleas. For the longest time, I thought that’s why they called it a flea market.”

The Oldsmar flea market, billed as “the mightiest in the south,” is still in business.

So is Tampa Bay Downs, which – while it does have a poker room – does not have the benefit of revenue from slot machines for operational expenses and purses. The track gets plenty of competition for the gambling dollar from the Seminole tribe’s massive Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.

The sights, sounds and smell of Tampa Bay Downs remind me of my first experiences at the track when racing got into my blood 40 years ago. It’s the kind of place that can make you fall in love with the sport all over again.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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