A Rising Star in the Sam F. Davis

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

A pair of accomplished 3-year-olds from New York will try their luck in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, but there's no guarantee their proven class will win the day. Joining the fray is a speedy, undefeated colt with the potential to give them a run for their money.

Heading into the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis, most handicappers will turn their attention to #4 Independence Hall, who is unbeaten and unchallenged in three starts. Independence Hall has already struck a couple of major blows on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, dominating the Nashua Stakes (G3) by a record-breaking 12 1/4 lengths before cruising to a comfortable four-length score in the Jerome Stakes.

In terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, Independence Hall is the fastest horse in the Sam F. Davis field. He won the Nashua in the stakes-record time of 1:34.66 for a mile, which translated to figures of 101 on both scales. He wasn't quite as brilliant in the Jerome, but he got the job done and sprinted the final quarter-mile in :24.73 over the slow track at Aqueduct.

So why isn't Independence Hall a lock to win the Sam F. Davis? Perhaps he is, but there are a couple of concerns to keep in mind. For one, Independence Hall has yet to race around two turns, a new obstacle he'll face on Saturday. For another, he had a tendency to race greenly, and this is the issue that could get him in trouble.

In all three of his races to date, Independence Hall has shown signs of immaturity and distraction. In his debut at Parx Racing, he broke slowly before rallying to win easily. In the Nashua, he broke better but weaved around repeatedly in the homestretch, shying from the whip while pulling away from his rivals. Then in the Jerome, both traits came back to haunt Independence Hall—he broke slowly, rushed up to vie for the lead, took command on the turn, and wound up shying from the whip in the stretch.

So far, Independence Hall has been able to overcome his antics, but this will grow more difficult as he steps up against tougher competition. The Jerome field was small and not particularly deep; runner-up Prince of Pharoahs subsequently finished a distant sixth in the Withers (G3). Independence Hall probably can't afford to blow the break and race greenly in the Sam F. Davis—not while stepping up in class and facing a larger field.

#1 Ajaaweed is the other accomplished New Yorker in the Sam F. Davis field. A Shadwell Farm homebred conditioned by Kiaran McLaughlin, Ajaaweed has done his best running around two turns and performed gallantly in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen (G2) on Dec. 7 at Aqueduct, charging furiously over a speed-favoring track to finish second by a half-length behind Shotski.

But Ajaaweed lacks tactical speed and does his best running from far off the pace, which could be problematic in the Sam F. Davis. There isn't much speed in Saturday's field, so producing a winning rally from off the pace will be a formidable task. Ajaaweed was on the rise last fall and has trained forwardly at Palm Meadows, but he seems more likely to round out the exotics than land in the winner's circle.

That's why I'm going to place my support behind #6 Premier Star. Tactical speed isn't a question mark for this undefeated son of Tapiture, who has flashed plenty of pace to win a pair of 7-furlong sprints at Gulfstream.

Trained by Jorge Navarro (who is 3-for-5 at Tampa Bay Downs during the current meet), Premier Star debuted on Dec. 8 and employed pace-tracking tactics to beat the front-running Caracaro by 1 3/4 lengths. Caracaro, in turn, returned to break his own maiden by half a dozen lengths.

Premier Star then stepped up in class for a Gulfstream allowance race, in which he led from the start to score by 5 1/4 lengths. His margin of victory might have been greater if jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. hadn't eased up on the speedy colt during the final 70 yards.

Following this blowout allowance win, Navarro told Gulfstream Park, "From Day 1 I knew I had something special... When I had him at Monmouth, I called the owner and said, 'This is the real deal.'"

Navarro's praise for Premier Star reminds me of last summer, when Navarro described his then-unheralded sprinter Shancelot as the best horse he'd ever trained. Not long after Navarro made this comment, Shancelot obliterated Saratoga's Amsterdam Stakes (G2) by 12 1/2 lengths, earning a massive 121 Beyer speed figure.

In the Sam F. Davis, Premier Star will be guided by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, whose infrequent rides at Tampa Bay Downs have resulted in a staggering 20 victories from 46 starts since the beginning of 2015. Drawing post six should give Premier Star plenty of options to work out a clean trip setting or stalking the pace, depending on how alertly Independence Hall breaks. As the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, I think Premier Star is an appealing alternative to the 6-5 favorite.

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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