The Kentucky Derby, it’s kind of a big deal. If there’s any sort of chance you have a Derby horse, you must at least take a gamble and and try to get there. Isn’t that what racing is all about?
That’s the approach John Oxley and Mark Casse took going into last Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes with Flameaway.
“After the Kitten’s Joy, Mr. Oxley called me and asked for us to train him on the dirt to see how he was, and all indications were that he was training really well on the dirt,” said assistant Norm Casse, who is running the Palm Meadows string for his father for the last time this winter.
Occasionally, a gamble pays off, and Saturday it payed off handsomely.
Flameaway turned back a challenge from 3-5 favorite Catholic Boy in the stretch of the Grade 3 stakes to officially jump onto the Kentucky Derby trail.
“When that horse scratched, it didn’t hurt my feelings,” Mark Casse said of Vouch, Flameaway’s main pace rival on paper going into the race. “I felt even better when I saw how firm the track was. He likes hard. I thought if they get in a fight, he’s going to win the fight. He’s a fighter and he fought back.”
Jose Lezcano let Flameaway roll leaving the gate to secure the lead and rail position. Lezcano made sure to keep the colt engaged down the backside to maintain the lead. Heavy favorite Catholic Boy strolled up three-wide around the turn and stuck a head in front at the quarter-pole. The pair dueled until the eighth-pole, when Flameaway again secured a short lead along the rail.
And that was it. It was never in doubt from that point. Flameaway proved best by a half-length over Catholic Boy, who was three-quarters of a length in front of the rallying Vino Rosso.
“He’s a funny horse, from the beginning, he would only do what he had to do,” Mark Casse said when speaking about the colt who won two scheduled turf stakes races last year which were moved to the main track. “As I said to Mr. Oxley, when you’re thinking about the Derby you don’t have to be good as a 2-year old, you don’t have to be good in January, you don’t have to be good in February, you have to be good in April and May.”
Casse and Oxley can only hope Flameaway continues to improve in hope of a trip to Churchill Downs in May.
Although defeated Saturday, trainer Jonathon Thomas also knows this was just a starting point for Catholic Boy.
“He had to go a little wider and give up a little more ground than was ideal but all in all it’s hard to make any tactical excuse,” Thomas said.
Among many different skills, Jose Ortiz may be most known for adjusting to in race dynamics. He did it last Friday at Gulfstream Park aboard Conquest Windycity to defeat Mind Your Biscuits and One Liner. Ortiz didn’t necessarily send his longshot mount forward in that race, but he didn’t wrangle back, get in a fight, and cancel out any chance he had at winning either. Although under different circumstances, Ortiz made a similar choice riding Dona Bruja for the first time Saturday in the Grade 3 Endeavour Stakes.
“She wasn’t relaxed a bit,” Ortiz said while greeting local patrons on his way back to the jockey’s room. “She was going rank and I was a bit nervous going into the first-turn. I said, ‘alright, she wants the lead so let her be.’”
Coming out of the turf course’s infield chute at the 1 1/16-mile distance, Ortiz dropped his hands and let the 5-year-old Argentinian mare get into a comfortable rhythm. Unchallenged until the 3/8ths pole, Dona Bruja easily shook off a brief challenge from La Coronel around the far turn.
“When I asked her to go and showed her the whip, she responded well. She’s a nice filly, I got lucky because that wasn’t her style and she got it done anyways,” Ortiz said.
Dona Bruja’s trainer Ignacio Correas IV was just as surprised as Ortiz when it came to how to the race was run.
“The plan wasn’t that one,” Correas said. “My race was La Coronel in the lead and we were 3 or 4 lengths behind her. I got it wrong and Jose got it right. I think that she’s once in a lifetime. The only thing you have to do with her is try and stay out of her way.”
The 2017 Eclipse Award-winning jockey did just that, as Dona Bruja and Ortiz pulled well clear of their competition through the stretch. They crossed the wire 4 lengths in front of La Coronel, who was a slight favorite at the windows over Dona Bruja.
“We gave her a little break and pointed for this race,” Correas said of the mare who finished second in last year’s Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington Park. “The plan was to give her one race here, that’s why we tried to get her sharp today. She’s going to get a little vacation and point for the Jenny Wiley (April 14 at Keeneland).”
It might not have been how they drew it up, but 2017 champion turf male World Approval proved best in his seasonal bow. Sent off at 1-5, World Approval rated in third well behind dueling longshot pacesetters through the early stages of the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes.
World Approval made a three-wide run for the lead under John Velazquez leaving the backstretch, with eventual runner-up Forge tracking his every move.
Seconds later, Doctor Mounty clipped heels with World Approval, which brought Doctor Mounty down as well as rival Cheyenne’s Colonel. Luckily, both horses popped right up after the fall. Each rider escaped serious injury as well.
World Approval held off a prolonged challenged from Forge through the stretch to win by a half-length.
“Billy (Mott’s) horse ran a good race, they separated themselves from the field. We didn’t have World Approval totally cranked up, he only had a few works,” Mark Casse said referring to the limited work tab of only five timed workouts. “We worked him a couple times by himself and he wouldn’t even hardly work. I kind of felt like he’d be about ninety-percent or so.”
Norm Casse agreed after overseeing World Approval’s preparations for his 2018 debut.
“His first couple of works back he wasn’t showing the same type of enthusiasm he normally does,” he said. “We worked him with La Coronel and that turned everything around. That’s pretty typical for a horse of his stature and age.”
Despite a trip to the Middle East for the $6 million Dubai Turf being the target for World Approval beforehand, Mark Casse said Monday that the 6-year-old would remain here for domestic targets going forward.
• The Suncoast Stakes offered qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks for the first time this year and C. S. Incharge proved best in her stakes debut for trainer Dale Romans.
The 3-year-old is the daughter of Take Charge Indy and the Romans-trained mare C.S. Royce, who also produced 2016 Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine and Grade 3 turf stakes winner Sweeping Paddy.
“That mare, just one after another,” Romans said. “I tried to make her a grass horse at first, and I don’t think she is. Her siblings were both turf horses, but they were by turf sires. With her, it’s a little different.”
C.S. Royce is the daughter of another mare Romans trained in Sweeping Story, third-place finisher in the 1999 Kentucky Oaks.
• Madison’s Luna looked like a rising star when he made a successful debut in the fifth race. The 3-year-old son of Tapit dueled with heavy favorite Getyourmidright until the final sixteenth, where he forged clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths. The final time was 1.15.76 for 6 1/2 furlongs, fitting right in with the other strong times over the main track on the day.
“Since we came to Florida, he’s really started putting more into his daily training,” trainer Philip Bauer said. “Pairing him up in his works, he’s started to show some intuition. You started to see the light bulb come on, but I don’t think I expected an effort like that. He handled everything in the paddock excellent today. I left the paddock feeling better about the race than I did driving up here.”
Rigney Racing LLC purchased the colt out of Scarlet Tango as a yearling for $400,000. His half-sister is Tara’s Tango, winner of the Grade 1 Santa Margarita in 2016.
• Mike Repole was on-hand to join his 3-year-old filly Cilantro in the winner’s circle after her maiden-breaking score going 7 furlongs. The Distorted Humor filly dueled through sharp early fractions and drew clear in the stretch to score by 4 lengths under John Velazquez. The victory was the sixth from six starters in the last two years for trainer Todd Pletcher with second-time starting maidens on dirt at Tampa Bay Downs.