How to Play the Pasco Stakes

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

This weekend is shaping up as a quiet one on the U.S. horse racing front. Only one graded stakes is on the agenda, and there aren't any Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers to be found.

So why don't we take a trip to Tampa Bay Downs to handicap the $125,000 Pasco S.? The seven-furlong sprint for three-year-olds isn't the richest or most prestigious race on the Saturday calendar, but it's churned out a surprising number of quality horses since its inaugural running in 1999.

Need some examples? In 2009, Pasco 1-2 finishers Musket Man and General Quarters went on to finish third and tenth in the Kentucky Derby (G1); Musket Man also ran third in the Preakness S. (G1) while General Quarters won multiple Grade 1 races during a productive career. Kentucky Derby starters Prospective (2012), Harry's Holiday (2014), and Win Win Win (2019) have also started in the Pasco, as did Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1) runner-up World of Trouble.

Six horses have entered the 2023 Pasco, with #4 Champions Dream (6-5) the clear favorite on the morning line. The son of Justify is easily the most accomplished horse in the Pasco field, having parlayed a gate-to-wire debut victory at Saratoga into a fifth-place finish in the Champagne S. (G1) and a tenacious victory in the Nashua S. (G3).

But is Champions Dream unbeatable in the Pasco? Not necessarily. He was beaten by a wide margin in the Champagne, and his Nashua effort wasn't the fastest on the clock. Racing over a sloppy track, Champions Dream benefited from closing ground into :28.01 final quarter-mile to win the one-mile heat by three-quarters of a length in 1:39.17. Runner-up Full Moon Madness subsequently finished fourth by nine lengths in the Heft S. at Laurel Park, while third-place finisher Prove Right returned to finish last of seven (beaten 32 lengths) in the Remsen S. (G2).

Champions Dream is eligible to improve while cutting back to seven furlongs (the distance of his debut win) and adding Lasix for the Pasco, but at 6-5, I'm not sure he's the best play. I would rather throw my support behind #3 Handsome Playboy (7-2).

Handsome Playboy has tackled several different race conditions during his brief career. He debuted in a one-mile maiden special weight over the Monmouth Park turf course and employed pace-tracking tactics to romp home on top by four lengths. Then he cut back to 6 1/2 furlongs and switched to Tapeta for the Fitz Dixon, Jr. Memorial Juvenile S. at Presque Isle Downs, where he misfired and finished fifth.

But Handsome Playboy has gotten back on track since switching to dirt at Tampa Bay Downs. Overlooked at odds of 33-1 in the six-furlong Inaugural S., Handsome Playboy fought on gamely from a pace-tracking position to finish second against a deep field. The winner, Super Chow, had previously won the Bowman Mill S. and subsequently added the Limehouse S. to his decorated resume, while third-place finisher Dreaming of Kona returned to upset the Mucho Macho Man S.

Handsome Playboy likewise returned to win his next start, employing his trademark pace-tracking tactics to dominate a $75,000 allowance optional claimer sprinting six furlongs at Tampa by 4 1/4 lengths. With Brisnet Speed ratings of 90 and 80 under his belt, Handsome Playboy is already fast enough to challenge Champions Dream for victory, and his recent experience sprinting over the Tampa main track should serve him well.

There are a couple of other positive factors in Handsome Playboy's favor. He has tactical speed but isn't a need-the-lead type, so he figures to work out a favorable trip under hot jockey Pablo Morales, who has gone 19-for-80 (24%) at Tampa since Dec. 1. And Handsome Playboy is trained by Gerald Bennett, whose record at Tampa during the same timeframe stands at 14-for-42 (33%). If Handsome Playboy's 7-2 morning line odds hold up (and I have my doubts), he'll be one of my best plays of the weekend.

#5 Armstrong (6-1), winner of the Clarendon S. sprinting over the Woodbine Tapeta track last month, is a logical choice for inclusion in exacta and trifecta tickets.  I also recommend supporting #1 Shaq Diesel (10-1), who won two straight sprints at Gulfstream (earning Brisnet Speed ratings of 82 and 90) prior to finishing fourth in the Inaugural. Given how strong the Inaugural turned out to be, Shaq Diesel won't need much improvement (or any improvement at all) to challenge for a top-three finish in the Pasco.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pasco Stakes?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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