Will Kentucky Wildcat Upset the Sam F. Davis?

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

When analyzing the field for Saturday's $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs, I'm struck by the fact that there is plenty of early speed entered in this 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race.

Certainly the front-running sprinter #2 Going for Gold, making his first start beyond six furlongs, will be a major player on the front end while breaking from post two and adding blinkers. #9 Well Defined will also race with headgear for the first time, which could help this speedy son of With Distinction return to the front-running tactics that secured him a 7 ½-length win in the Florida Sire In Reality Stakes last September. And #10 Still Dreaming, while not a one-dimensional front-runner horse, likes to race close to the pace and should be involved from the outset while breaking from the far outside post position.

All this could potentially prove problematic for the expected favorite #3 Knicks Go, who is set to make his 2019 debut after enjoying a productive two-year-old campaign last year. Knicks Go knows of only one way to run, and that is fast from the get-go. That style reaped great dividends in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland, which he won in gate-to-wire fashion by 5 ½ lengths, and he subsequently showed that he doesn't absolutely need the lead when employing pace-tracking tactics to secure second place in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), where he finished behind only the future two-year-old champion Game Winner.

The Juvenile marked a career-best effort for Knicks Go. He posted a 90 Beyer while coming home a length in front of future Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) Signalman, with the rest of the field another six lengths behind. My only concern is this—did Knicks Go's big performance knock him out?

The reason I wonder is because Knicks Go seemingly ran his heart out in the Juvenile. He was absolutely dead-game in the homestretch while trying to hold off Game Winner's late charge; indeed, Knicks Go was trying so hard that he couldn't even maintain a straight course, drifting outward gradually (and then sharply) through the lane. It had to be a draining effort, and when Knicks Go returned three weeks later to contest the Kentucky Jockey Club, he failed to threaten after pressing the pace and retreated to finish eleventh, beaten 18 lengths.

Maybe he was coming back too soon, or maybe he didn't care for the sloppy, sealed track. But Knicks Go regressed sharply off his Juvenile effort, and I wonder what kind of performance we'll see from him in the Sam F. Davis. His layoff since the Kentucky Jockey Club should do him good, but the pace scenario of the Sam F. Davis could be challenging, especially for a horse who will tote top weight of 124 pounds. His work tab is also a little slim; he's been training fast (including a bullet five-furlong move in :58 2/5 on January 26th), but he's only posted three workouts in preparation for Saturday's race. Since Knicks Go will be favored, perhaps at a short price, I'm inclined to take a shot against him.

One runner who could benefit from a quick pace is #6 Kentucky Wildcat, a beautifully-bred son of Tapit out of the Grade 1-winning Ghostzapper mare Better Lucky. He's shown steady improvement since his debut at Saratoga last summer, where he finished sixth behind Code of Honor sprinting six furlongs. When Kentucky Wildcat stretched out to 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park, he ran evenly to finish third behind the capable King for a Day, and he stepped up his game again when tackling a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct on December 1, winning by half a length over the eye-catching next-out maiden winner Country House.

I was particularly impressed by Kentucky Wildcat's maiden victory at Aqueduct because he didn't enjoy the best of setups. He was caught wide around the turn while trying to rally into slow fractions of :24.68 and :49.14, but he actually struck the front by the time the field turned for home and he was quite game holding off Country House through the homestretch. RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 8 on their 1-to-100 scale, indicating that front-runners had the advantage from a pace perspective, so I thought Kentucky Wildcat ran very well to rally and win with his wide trip.

Notably, the race also came back fast on the Beyer scale; Kentucky Wildcat received an 86, and the strength of the field was reiterated when two of the also-rans (Midnight Curfew and Baffin Bay) joined Country House in winning their next starts.

If Kentucky Wildcat is able to settle kindly behind a fast pace in the Sam F. Davis, I think he'll take another step forward and contend for victory in his stakes debut. He'll be carrying just 118 pounds, six less than Knicks Go, and with five workouts under his belt since the start of the year, he should be fit and ready to roll for the high-profile owner/trainer team of Godolphin and Tom Albertrani. He's my choice to post the upset.

Another runner that I would seriously consider is #4 Cave Run, who races for Godolphin and trainer Eoin Harty. As a son of Street Sense out of a Bernardini mare, Cave Run is bred to thrive running long, so it was noteworthy that he won his debut sprinting six furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs by 6 ¼ lengths, earning an 86 Beyer.

Subsequently, Cave Run seemed to take a step backward when finishing a distant third in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, but that was a fast race (the winner threw down a 99 Beyer while breaking the track record) and Cave Run made a noteworthy middle move into the teeth of a :22.42 second quarter-mile, gaining three lengths to run that fraction in approximately :21.90 seconds. It's understandable that he flattened out from there, and I'm tempted to think that he could step up his game significantly if he runs a more even race while stretching out around two turns on Saturday.

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


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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 www.theturfboard.com.

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