OLDSMAR, FL. – As a former assistant to trainer Mike Maker, 35-year-old Jordan Blair got to admire many of the Kitten’s Joy offspring Maker trained for top owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey.
Last spring, Blair purchased a Kentucky-bred daughter of Kitten’s Joy-Prime Silver, by Silver Hawk, for $35,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s 2-Year-Old Sale. “Not many of Kitten’s Joy’s babies are that pretty, but they all run hard, and if you get a nice one it can turn out to be something special,” Blair said.
On Saturday, he will saddle the filly, Silver Magnolia, in the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs. She is the first graded-stakes starter for Blair, who races her in partnership under his Evergreen Stables banner.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity. My wife Jordan and I got into this business to try to build up to have this quality of horse and be on this stage,” said Blair, who trains eight other horses, all but one for outside clients. “I’m not nervous. It’s more exciting than anything. We’re happy to be in it, but we didn’t enter her just to be running.
“I’d really like her to make a good showing and hit the board, or win. I think she has a good shot,” Blair added.
His wife, Jordan Springer, will not be at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday. Eight months pregnant, she has returned to the couple’s Louisville, Ky., home and will watch the race on their TwinSpires account.
Silver Magnolia, which broke her maiden here on the turf on Dec. 23 by eight-and-a-half lengths before staging a strong rally to finish second in the Fillies Division of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Championship Stakes at the Ocala Training Center on Jan. 26, will be ridden by Fernando De La Cruz.
The competition in the 14-horse field includes the Ramseys’ Ava’s Kitten, a Kitten’s Joy daughter trained by Chad Brown.
The Kentucky-bred Silver Magnolia is one of a number of horses that have trained this winter at Tampa Bay Downs for Saturday’s Festival Day 36 card, which is headlined by the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for 3-year-olds on the main track, the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf and the Florida Oaks.
And while it’s likely ship-ins trained by such racing stalwarts as Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse, Dale Romans, Chad Brown and H. Graham Motion will receive the majority of support at the betting windows, the trainers contacted today echoed Blair on the most important point: “We didn’t enter her (or him) just to be running.”
Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Gerald Bennett will saddle Valueable Charmer for the Florida Oaks and 4-year-old Royal Jewely for the Hillsborough, which is headed by the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Grass Female, Tepin.
“Everybody tells me (Tepin) can’t get beat, but you see that in horse racing. The best horses do get beat,” said Bennett. “Royal Jewely has shown she loves this turf course, and since she got back here, she has been getting better each race. She’s been training good for Saturday.
“There’s a monster horse in there, but if you don’t try to stop them you can’t win, anyway,” Bennett reasoned.
Royal Jewely, which is owned by Michael Reynolds and Anthony J. Piarulli, will be ridden by Daniel Centeno. Ronnie Allen, Jr., has the assignment on Valueable Charmer, which finished second in the Suncoast Stakes here on Feb. 13 but has not competed on turf.
“She galloped a mile-and-a-half this morning and came off bouncing around and feeling good,” Bennett said. “She got a terrible draw (the No. 12 post position), but all the Value Plus offspring I’ve had have run good on grass, and I think she’ll handle it.”
Bennett also sends out 4-year-old gelding This Boy’s Sharp in the $100,000 Challenger Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track.
Trainer John P. Terranova, II, who saddled his first graded-stakes winner in 1998, has enjoyed his share of success at the Oldsmar oval, winning the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes here in 2013 with Falling Sky and capturing the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf that same year with Swift Warrior.
Terranova will try to add the Florida Oaks to his graded trophy case with Great Britain-bred Enjoy Yourself, which breaks from the No. 1 post. She has won two of her three career starts, including a victory here on Feb. 17 in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming event on the turf. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo is the rider.
In her only defeat, on Oct. 31 on the turf at Belmont, Enjoy Yourself rallied for third, behind probable Oaks favorite Ava’s Kitten. Enjoy Yourself is owned by Sovereign Stable.
“She had a tough trip in that race (at Belmont) – she got shuffled back early and ran very wide, but she was able to finish well,” Terranova said of Enjoy Yourself’s first stateside performance. “We freshened her and have been pointing to this race since her season ended last year.
“She seems like a very talented filly with a big future, and the distance should only help her. She has breezed twice since her last race and I think she is coming in really strong, so I just hope the trip works out for us.”
Still another Tampa Bay Downs-based trainer with a Florida Oaks entrant is Tom Proctor, who will send out Family Meeting for breeder-owner Glen Hill Farm. Brian Pedroza is the jockey. Family Meeting won the Grade III Jimmy Durante Stakes on the turf at Del Mar on Nov. 28 at odds of 37-1 and will be making her first start as a 3-year-old.
Joan Scott knows about winning graded stakes. Her biggest victory came in the Grade I Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland in 2010 with Dr. Zic, and she also won the Grade III Ontario Colleen Stakes at Woodbine in 2014 with Speed Seeker.
That 5-year-old Florida-bred mare is among nine set to challenge Tepin in the mile-and-an-eighth Hillsborough. Speed Seeker, which will be ridden by Manoel Cruz, finished third in last year’s renewal, behind subsequent Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten and the Chad Brown-trained Ball Dancing, which also returns Saturday. Brown also trained Stephanie’s Kitten.
“It’s a stretch to go in there, but (Speed Seeker) is doing very well right now and it’s worth a shot,” Scott said. “Every filly in there is a good filly. Tepin is lovely, but they don’t pass out the money before the race. It’s often a matter of how the pace sets up, so you let the rider make the choices depending on what is going on out there.”
A victory against this level of competition would also substantially increase Speed Seeker’s value as a broodmare. “This kind of race is always worth taking a shot,” Scott said.
Michele Boyce, the trainer of 5-year-old mare Lovely Loyree, was happy to go home with third-place money on Feb. 13 after the Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes, won by Tepin. But she says her Illinois-bred earned another crack at the champ with her solid effort.
“It’s a thrill to be running in a race this big. I won’t be washing out too much, hopefully,” Boyce joked. “(Lovely Loyree) gave a good account of herself in the Endeavour, so we said ‘Let’s try it again.’ Tepin is an exceptional filly and it’s a great leap of faith, but we’re going to try it. Our horse has been training nicely and showed she likes the course.”
Lovely Loyree will again be ridden by De La Cruz.
“She was a good third, so that makes me think we should give it a shot,” Boyce said. “But if she doesn’t do well, we’ll know to avoid these kind of races in the future and look for easier races when we get her back to Illinois.”
Back to the Florida Oaks, in which Tampa Bay Downs trainer David Hinsley will be sending out a long shot in the Illinois-bred Missalaney. She broke her maiden on the turf on Nov. 3 at Hawthorne and is winless since, although she finished third here in the Gasparilla Stakes on Jan. 23 and managed to rally for fourth in the Suncoast.
Missalaney will be ridden by Joe Bravo.
“There is really no place else to run her,” Hinsley said. “It would be ludicrous to enter her in an allowance race here, because the purses are so much higher up north (and a victory would cause her to lose a condition).
“We happened to get a very good rider, and I’m happy about that. It might be like hunting bear with a switch, but it’s fun to be in it. She had excuses in a couple of her races, so we might as well give her a shot.”
In terms of the so-called “big picture,” Keith Nations might have the most to gain of any of the Tampa Bay Downs-based trainers competing Saturday. Nations trains Morning Fire, which will break from the No. 1 post under jockey Daniel Centeno in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. A strong performance by Morning Fire, which won the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes here on Jan. 23 before finishing third in the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Feb. 13, behind Destin and Rafting, could lead Nations and Mercedes Stables owner Ernest Moody to make Morning Fire a late Triple Crown nominee.
Befitting a trainer who knows he must make up five-plus lengths on Destin, Nations has elected to remove Morning Fire’s blinkers for Saturday. “We’re trying to get him to relax a little more. He ran real well in the Davis but was a little too rank early, so hopefully, pulling the blinkers will make a big difference,” Nations said. “When Daniel worked him (Saturday, five furlongs in a bullet 1:01), he said he was way more relaxed and not as much on the bit, and he finished strong down the lane.”
Nations knows the butterflies will be churning Saturday – his own. “It is going to be a big thrill. This is a very prestigious race, and I’m going to have to find a way to calm my nerves and keep myself busy throughout the day.”
With so many questions to be answered, Nations and his peers can take solace that many of the answers will be provided by 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“You can always talk with your owners about what you’re going to do down the road,” Nations said. “But the horses always seem to pave their own paths.”
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