Seeking a Mild Upset in the Sam F. Davis

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

One of the most challenging to handicap Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races so far this year is coming up on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. That's the $250,000 Sam F. Davis S. (G3), which has drawn an ultra-competitive field of 11 colts and one gelding to race 1 1/16 miles.

One reason why the race is so competitive is the fact none of the dozen entrants have run particularly fast on the Beyer or Brisnet speed figure scales. The highest Beyer Speed Figure in the field is an 83, while the highest Brisnet Speed rating is a 94. This means it won't take much improvement for a longshot to challenge for victory.

In sorting through the contenders, I was initially drawn to #6 Agate Road. Trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the Sam F. Davis a record seven times, Agate Road has shown plenty of talent on turf. Last year, he unleashed a giant homestretch rally to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Saratoga, after which he rallied to win the Pilgrim S. (G2) and finish fifth (beaten only 2 1/2 lengths) in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

Agate Road also ran well in his three-year-old debut, finishing second in the Dania Beach S. at Gulfstream Park. That one-mile contest featured slow early fractions of :25.32 and :50.08 set by a gate-to-wire winner, so Agate Road ran deceptively well to sprint his final quarter-mile in approximately :22.52 and finish only 1 1/2 lengths behind.

But... even though Agate Road finished second by a nose when debuting on dirt in a one-mile maiden special weight at Saratoga, I question whether his performance that day is a true indication of dirt prowess. The race was rained off the turf, and the final quarter-mile elapsed in :27.99, so Agate Road's rally after a slow start was aided by a sharply decelerating pace.

That's why I've settled on #7 Copper Tax as my choice to win the Sam F. Davis. The son of Copper Bullet is bred for speed, and I'll admit 1 1/16 miles may stretch the limits of his stamina. But it's encouraging to note Copper Tax dominated the one-mile Rocky Run S. at Delaware Park as part of a five-race win streak last year, leading all the way to prevail by 6 3/4 lengths over a field including next-out Inaugural S. runner-up #4 Crazy Mason and recent Swale S. winner Frankie's Empire.

Copper Tax earned an 81 Beyer in the Rocky Run and followed up with an 82 when rallying to win the six-furlong James F. Lewis III S. at Laurel Park by a neck over next-out Gulfstream allowance optional claiming winner Inveigled, who finished fourth in the Holy Bull S. (G3) last week. On the Brisnet scale, those victories yielded back-to-back 94 Speed ratings, so Copper Tax ranks among the fastest horses in the Sam F. Davis field.

Some bettors will hesitate to support Copper Tax because he faltered in his first Road to the Kentucky Derby foray, finishing sixth by 14 3/4 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct two months ago. But the Remsen took place over a strongly speed-favoring track, so Copper Tax—racing in midpack while losing significant ground around the turns—never had a fair chance to win.

From all appearances, the Remsen was a deep race. Third-place finisher Drum Roll Please returned to win the Jerome S., seventh-place finisher Domestic Product bounced back to run second as a longshot in the Holy Bull, and Le Dom Bro and Billal—ninth and eighth in the Remsen—improved to finish second and fourth in the Swale.

Assuming Copper Tax encounters a fair track in the Sam F. Davis, I think we'll see him bounce back with a big run. He enters off back-to-back one-mile workouts at Laurel Park, which will hopefully build his stamina, and his versatility in terms of running style affords him options for working out a favorable trip. I'm willing to bet Copper Tax can spring a small surprise at Tampa.

Still, multi-race bettors might want to use #9 Change of Command for good measure. The Shug McGaughey trainee has made steady progress since debuting with a fourth-place finish at Saratoga behind future Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Fierceness. Change of Command enters off maiden special weight and $75,000 allowance optional claiming victories at Gulfstream Park, and on the Beyer and Brisnet scales he's more or less as fast as Copper Tax. McGaughey has gone 7-for-14 (50%) at Tampa since December, and Change of Command is adding blinkers for his stakes debut, so there's a lot to like about his chances.

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


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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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