The Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes will be run for the 37th time Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. It is the traditional prep for next month’s Tampa Bay Derby, which has been the more productive race as a steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby. In recent years, fields for the Davis have been primarily composed of unproven 3-year-olds looking to earn spots in the more prestigious Kentucky Derby prep races down the line. However, with many of the current Florida-based 3-year-olds looking to avoid champion Classic Empire, this year’s renewal has drawn one of the strongest fields ever assembled for this race.
Top Kentucky Derby prospect McCraken is obviously the main attraction, but the supporting cast genuinely bolsters this event’s significance as an early-season test. Among McCraken’s main challengers are Wild Shot and No Dozing, who each placed in important late-season stakes as juveniles, and Todd Pletcher’s undefeated stakes winner Fact Finding.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that the early pace will be fast, with Fact Finding (#3) and Wild Shot (#6) vying for the lead. State of Honor and Chance of Luck, who are both exiting one-turn races, figure to be in close pursuit. Such a scenario would appear to set the table for McCraken to extend his unbeaten streak. On the other hand, we saw Classic Empire throw in a disappointing performance off a layoff last week – a reminder that these newly turned 3-year-olds must reassert themselves as they and their competitors continue to mature.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, STATE OF HONOR (8-1): Mark Casse has two starters in this race, and they actually faced off last season at Woodbine in the Coronation Futurity. That day, it was King and His Court who got the better of this colt. State of Honor had everything his own way up front and was simply beaten by a better horse. Yet some time has passed, and State of Honor has since done something that his stablemate has yet to accomplish: transfer his synthetic-track form to dirt. He did so with a solid second-place finish in Gulfstream’s Mucho Macho Man, in which he engaged in a stretch-long duel with Sonic Mule, eventually falling just a head short at the finish. While he did lose ground going wide in that race, he also was able to avoid Gulfstream’s dreaded kickback. That is something he will almost certainly have to deal with here as he breaks from the rail. Horses who have run back out of that Mucho Macho Man have not exactly distinguished themselves (Sonic Mule was a well-beaten third in the Swale, and third-place Talk Logistics lost the Holy Bull by more than 14 lengths), so State of Honor will likely need to take a step forward to do better than a minor award here. He’s one to throw in underneath.
#2, KING AND HIS COURT (8-1): This gelding was one of the best 2-year-olds in Canada last year. He defeated stablemate State of Honor in the Coronation Futurity and followed that up with a visually impressive score in the Display Stakes. He had terrible position heading into the stretch of that race but was able to bull his way through traffic, showing an impressive turn of foot over the last eighth of a mile. He has clearly thrived since being transferred to Mark Casse’s barn, and the projected pace scenario of this race figures to work in his favor. On the other hand, the dirt question is somewhat troublesome since he does have a pedigree that is more strongly geared toward turf. His sire, Court Vision, has been winning at a rate of only 10 percent with his dirt starters, and his female family is largely made of up horses who raced primarily on synthetic surfaces. I suppose he could pick up some pieces late, but I prefer his stablemate in this spot.
#3, FACT FINDING (9-2): You have to wonder if this colt’s connections are having second thoughts about ducking Classic Empire last weekend, especially considering that the Holy Bull winner accomplished his victory in wire-to-wire fashion. In any event, he finds himself at Tampa Bay Downs facing a field that is not actually much softer than the one he would have lined up against last week. He’s won each of his three starts by open lengths, but all of those races were contested around one turn. His dam had the stamina to handle route distances, but this colt is a son of The Factor, who has been more of a speed influence. His win in the Smooth Air may appear impressive at first glance, but he clearly relished the slop that day when other runners did not, particularly in the case of the two horses who were supposed to be his main competition.
I’m somewhat of a skeptic, but I nevertheless have to show Fact Finding some measure of respect due to Todd Pletcher’s stellar record in this race. He’s won six of the last 11 editions of the Sam F. Davis, often with lightly raced horses who have similar profiles to this one. I’ll use him on deeper trifecta tickets.
#4, CHANCE OF LUCK (15-1): The local hope is certainly bred to stretch out in distance, being by a stakes-winning son of Skip Away and out of a dam who earned more than $600,000 while primarily contesting route races. Unfortunately, this horse just has not run particularly fast in any of his races and appears to be overmatched. He’s a potential pace player, but I doubt he’s around at the finish.
#5, SIX GUN SALUTE (30-1): He was no match for Chance of Luck in the Pasco last time, and that one appears to be up against it here. Pass.
#6, WILD SHOT (5-1): This colt has plenty of speed, but I wouldn’t let the unfavorable pace projection color your opinion of this his chances too much because there’s a lot to like. After two encouraging sprint efforts to start his career, Wild Shot nearly pulled off a shocking upset when initially stretched out in distance in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. He set a strong early pace before getting run down by Classic Empire in the stretch. While McCraken got the better of him in the Kentucky Jockey Club, one could argue that this colt ran just as well in defeat. That race featured a fast early pace (indicated by the red color-coding in TimeformUS PPs), and Wild Shot was up close to those fractions throughout. He became a bit rank when the leader, Uncontested, crossed in front of him, but he settled nicely thereafter. Wild Shot was run down by McCraken in the final furlong, but he battled hard all the way, finishing with far greater energy than Uncontested, who faded in the stretch. Uncontested would return to record an impressive victory in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn, improving his TimeformUS Speed Figure by eight points, confirming the notion that the pace players in the Kentucky Jockey Club ran well.
Wild Shot has lost ground in the late stages of his only two route attempts, but I don’t necessarily view this colt as having distance limitations. Progeny of Trappe Shot do surprising well in dirt routes (22 percent win rate), and this colt’s dam is a half-sister to Pulpit. (Pulpit actually shows up prominently in this pedigree as he is also Trappe Shot’s grandsire.) Wild Shot is drawn perfectly, outside of the other speeds, and should fall into an ideal stalking position under Robby Albarado. I think he has an excellent chance to win.
#7, TAPWRIT (8-1): Pletcher has been dominant in this race, so I’m hesitant to disregard any of his runners. That said, this colt has some improving to do if he’s going to be a major factor here. He did win a minor stakes last time out, but that was scheduled for turf, and the only horse who gave him a serious challenge is better suited to turf and synthetic surfaces. This $1.2 million yearling purchase has not yet proven that he’s ready to take center stage.
#8, MCCRAKEN (2-1): In the span of 55 days last fall, this homebred transformed from an unknown maiden into one of the most heralded prospects for this year’s Run for the Roses. He made three starts and basically did not make a single mistake. He exhibited all of the qualities you want to see in a horse who is set to embark on a quest for Derby glory the following year. In fact, he was so professional last year that it almost makes you wonder if he has any room for improvement. Regardless, he is the horse to beat.
I absolutely love the way McCraken finished off his races last year, with each sweeping stretch move seemingly a carbon copy of the last one. While Wild Shot did much of the dirty work up front in the Kentucky Jockey Club, take nothing away from this horse, who went wide on the far turn and appeared to have more left in the tank as he cruised past his rival in the final eighth of a mile. As talented as this colt is, Ian Wilkes has never been the type of trainer who needs to win every race. There’s an endgame with this horse, and this is just one step toward the goal. There’s also the issue of the price. I doubt that he’s going to offer any win value, especially considering that he doesn’t really have a speed-figure edge over this field. In fact, TimeformUS Speed Figures indicate he’s slower than Wild Shot and No Dozing by a slim margin. He’s not my top pick, but he’ll be featured prominently in my play.
#9, NO DOZING (4-1): This colt has a similar profile to Wild Shot. After a couple of encouraging efforts sprinting against lesser competition, his connections plunged him into graded stakes, and he acquitted himself nicely. He actually finished just a head behind Wild Shot when they made their stakes debuts in last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity. No Dozing had to overcome some trouble at the start and did well to range up into contention on the backstretch. He attempted to follow Classic Empire through the far-turn run but flattened out when that one drew off in the stretch. Overall, it was a solid effort, and one could argue that he ran a stronger race than Wild Shot. No Dozing then showed up in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct and was forced to endure yet another wide trip, racing in the 3 to 4 paths around both turns. Despite losing significant ground coming into the stretch, he finished with interest, apparently having no problems handling the nine-furlong distance. The Remsen was assigned a strong TimeformUS Speed Figure, with No Dozing earning a field-best 114. Horses to run back out of that race have done poorly overall, but some of that can be attributed to trips and track conditions. Nevertheless, the jury is still out with regards to the quality of the Remsen field.
As luck would have it, No Dozing draws the outside post for this Sam F. Davis, so Daniel Centeno will have to come out of the gate with a plan if he intends to avoid another wide trip. No Dozing is obviously one of the three major contenders, but I wonder if he will actually go off at his morning-line price of 4-1. This runner has become something of a trip handicappers’ darling after his last two starts, and these so-called wise-guy horses are often underlays.
The top contenders are Wild Shot (#6), McCraken (#8), and No Dozing (#9). I see very little separating them, so I’ll take my chances with the longest price of the trio, Wild Shot. The wagering public may end up ignoring him given the buzz surrounding his two rivals. I’ll bet him to win at odds of 4-1 or greater and key him with the other two in exotics.
Exacta Key Box: 6 with 8,9
Trifecta: 6 with 8,9 with 1,3,8,9
Trifecta: 8,9 with 6 with 1,3,8,9