Vino Rosso Looks Live in Sam F. Davis Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues this Saturday with the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs, and although just seven horses have been entered in the 8.5-furlong race, the quality of the field is above average and the race should be very competitive.

The 8-5 favorite on the morning line is Catholic Boy, who is also the most accomplished horse in the race by far. Trained by Jonathan Thomas, the son of More Than Ready debuted in a 7 ½-furlong turf race at Gulfstream last summer and won with a sharp rally from behind a slow pace. He then shipped to Saratoga and upset the With Anticipation Stakes (gr. III), a race that served as his final prep for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), in which he rallied to finish fourth, beaten just 1 ½ lengths.

However, it was Catholic Boy's dirt debut in the December 2nd Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct that launched him on to the Kentucky Derby trail. Racing nine furlongs over a slow, tiring track, Catholic Boy settled in mid-pack early on before launching an eye-catching rally around the far turn, a move that he sustained strongly in the homestretch to draw off and win by 4 ¾ lengths. Notably, the runner-up--Avery Island--returned to win the Withers Stakes (gr. III) last weekend.

It's hard to knock what Catholic Boy has accomplished so far, but I'm hesitant to consider him unbeatable in the Sam F. Davis. It's not uncommon to see turf horses excel in their dirt debut, only to falter in their second start over the surface-the 2017 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) winner Good Samaritan comes to mind. Furthermore, Catholic Boy will have to carry top weight of 122 pounds in the Sam F. Davis while facing a field without much speed and switching to a track that is quicker than Aqueduct.

Instead, I'm going to take a shot with Vino Rosso. With a classic-oriented pedigree (he's by Curlin out of a Street Cry mare), Vino Rosso is bred to improve with maturity, yet he's currently unbeaten in two starts and looks like a special colt. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Vino Rosso won his debut at Aqueduct last November with a quick rally from off the pace, then shipped to Tampa Bay Downs and cruised to an easy win in a one-mile and 40-yard allowance optional claiming race, winning by 2 ½ lengths under jockey John Velazquez.

Granted, Vino Rosso's winning time wasn't very fast and translated to a Beyer speed figure of just 70, but I loved his performance overall. After tracking slow fractions of :24.81, :50.06, and 1:14.42, Vino Rosso moved up to take command in almost effortless fashion and pulled away under a hand ride to win with complete authority. I get the impression that there's a lot more to Vino Rosso than first meets the eye, and it's worth noting that Velazquez made a special trip to Tampa Bay Downs just to ride Vino Rosso in that allowance race.

Furthermore, Todd Pletcher's record at Tampa Bay Downs is exceptional--according to DRF Formulator, Pletcher has won with a staggering 25 of his 57 starters at Tampa Bay Downs over the last three years, producing a 44% win rate and a $2.45 ROI. In addition, Pletcher has won the Sam F. Davis six times in the last twelve years, so when he has a starter, watch out. Throw in the fact that Vino Rosso will carry just 116 pounds, and I think he's poised to pull off an upset.

Hollywood Star should also draw support based on a solid two-year-old campaign that saw him place second in both the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), but the Dale Romans-trainee could only finish a distant sixth against top company in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and has yet to run particularly fast in terms of Beyer speed figures, with his career-best being a 76. As a deep closer in a race without much speed, I think he could be vulnerable in the Sam F. Davis.

Flameaway enters the Sam F. Davis off a narrow win in the Kitten's Joy Stakes over the turf course at Gulfstream Park, and while his turf prowess is no surprise considering that his sire is Scat Daddy, he's also enjoyed success on dirt, winning both the Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga and the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland. However, it's worth noting that both of those races were rained off of the turf and were contested over very wet, sealed tracks; in his lone run on a dry dirt track, Flameaway was soundly beaten in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. I admire Flameaway's versatility and his ability to win with a variety of running styles, but I'll let him beat me in the Sam F. Davis.

One longshot that could be worth a look is Navy Armed Guard. Although he's gone 0-for-5 to start his career, the son of Midshipman has held his own against some promising young horses such as Mississippi (runner-up in a pair of allowance races at Gulfstream this winter), and last time out Navy Armed Guard was beaten just a neck by the Pletcher runner Road to Damascus in a one-mile and 40-yard maiden race at Tampa Bay Downs, earning an 80 Beyer. He'll need to take another step forward to contend, but his maiden status should ensure that he starts at a good price and I think he's worth including in the trifecta and/or superfecta.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Sam F. Davis Stakes?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for the fourth consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

Recent Posts

More Blogs