Catholic Boy, one of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby later this spring, makes his 3-year-old debut on Saturday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. While he is the headline attraction, he faces some notable challengers in the form of stakes-placed runners Hollywood Star and Vouch, as well as the lightly-raced and untested colt Vino Rosso.
The Pace Projector indicates that Vouch (#7) is likely to set the pace with Flameaway (#2) and Septimius Severus (#4) his closest early pursuers. Vouch is the only true front-runner in the field, having conquered a field of maidens after leading throughout in his career debut last fall. However, he did show the ability to stalk the pace in the Remsen, so jockey Daniel Centeno does have some options as he breaks from the outside post position. Catholic Boy (#6) is predicted to take up a spot somewhere in mid-pack. He performed as a closer in most of his turf races, but he was fairly aggressive in the early stages of that lone dirt start in the Remsen, racing within a couple of lengths of the leader throughout.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, NAVY ARMED GUARD (15-1): The lone maiden in the field has been steadily improving over the course of his recent starts. He was a grinding runner-up behind the talented Mississippi last fall at Churchill and most recently fell short by only a neck going two turns over this racetrack last month. He would likely need the pace to completely fall apart in order to have a chance at hitting the board, and I’m doubtful that we’ll see such a scenario play out.
#2, FLAMEAWAY (8-1): This four-time winner is likely to attract some modest support given the fact that he’s won three stakes races and has been improving recently. However, I’m confident that he’s running in the wrong spot. This colt is clearly more of a turf horse. His pedigree suggests that turf should be his preferred surface and he’s run what were easily the two best races of his career on grass. Furthermore, I think his two wins on dirt are misleading. Both came over wet, sealed tracks in off-the-turf races that were depleted of horses with any true dirt ability. In my opinion, any money that this horse attracts only creates better value on the rest.
#3, VINO ROSSO (3-1): It would be easy for a handicapper like me to declare that Vino Rosso is simply not fast enough to be competitive with top 3-year-olds based on his extremely slow optional claiming win last time out, his first start around two turns. However, I think I would be remiss in failing to point out that Todd Pletcher has gotten away with this in the past. In fact, he prepped Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming in the exact same fashion last year. Always Dreaming was a horse that had shown some promise as a 2-year-old, but had run pretty slowly in his two route races against vastly inferior competition to kick off his 3-year-old campaign. Nevertheless, he stepped right up into stakes company in the Florida Derby and destroyed a field of good horses while running a much faster speed figure.
What makes me optimistic about Vino Rosso’s potential to run a better race this time is his debut victory at Aqueduct. It’s never easy for any horse to win going 7 furlongs in his first career start, and Vino Rosso did so despite racing somewhat greenly. I was encouraged by the way he finished off that race, and the TimeformUS Speed Figure came back very fast (110). Despite the unnervingly slow nature of his next win at Tampa, that was clearly just a learning experience. John Velazquez handled him with kid gloves, only pulling out the whip in deep stretch once the horse was pulling clear. The TimeformUS Pace Figures for that race (all color-coded in blue) indicate that the pace was extremely slow, which resulted in a very low speed figure.
Vino Rosso is bred to run all day. He’s by Curlin out of a Street Cry dam, and there’s a ton of stamina in his female family. In fact, his dam is a half-sister to Commissioner, who was a narrow second in the Belmont Stakes a few years ago. Furthermore, Todd Pletcher knows how to make the most of these Tampa Bay Downs preps. Over the past five years, he is 6 for 17 in graded stakes on the dirt at this track, with an ROI of $3.35. At anything at or above his morning line price of 3-1, he’s the one that I want to bet.
#4, SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS (15-1): This runner ran well enough in his 3-year-old debut, albeit while finished a distant second behind the talented Todd Pletcher colt, Impact Player. The pace of that race was quite slow for the caliber of horses he was facing, and he did well to rally for second after breaking about a length slowly. The major question for him is the stretch-out in distance. His sire, Roman Ruler, is capable of siring horses that can go longer, but his dam’s family is more geared towards sprinting. Also, George Weaver just gets a 26 TimeformUS Trainer Rating with horses moving up from allowance to stakes company.
#5, HOLLYWOOD STAR (5-2): This colt is certainly bred to be a top runner, by Malibu Moon out of a Grade 1-winning mare. While he earned a couple of graded stakes placings last season, he still has to prove that he can take a significant step forward if he’s going to truly live up to that potential. It must be noted that the rail was dead at Del Mar on the day that he contested the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which hindered this colt’s chances. Joel Rosario was one of the few riders in that Juvenile that guided his mount right over to the rail and stayed there for the majority of the race. Despite that trip, Hollywood Star did well to pass half the field when angled out in the stretch, albeit while no match for the top three. The fact that Dale Romans decided to bypass the Holy Bull for this seemingly easier spot has may suggest that he’ll need his start back from the layoff. He got a favorable pace scenario in his best effort in last fall’s Iroquois, and I’m not sure that he’s going to get quite as advantageous a setup today. He’s one that I’ll certainly use underneath, but I prefer others in the win slot.
#6, CATHOLIC BOY (8-5): This colt is the headline attraction following his commanding performance in last fall’s Remsen. He had shown some real ability in his first few starts on turf, winning the Grade 3 With Anticipation before finishing a troubled fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. However, he ascended to a new level when switched to dirt. Showing uncharacteristic early eagerness, he pulled Manny Franco up into contention through the early portion of the race. Manny moved his hands slightly entering the far turn and Catholic Boy instantly joined the leaders for the run around the far turn. Coming to the top of the stretch, Franco had a handful of horse, and the race was over as soon as he pulled the trigger.
Now Catholic Boy returns as a 3-year-old and must prove that his Remsen score was no fluke. By all accounts, he’s been training forwardly for this return to the races and is expected to pick up where he left off at the end of last season. One potential reservation is Jonathan Thomas’s poor record at Tampa Bay Downs. Over the past five years, he is just 4 for 45 at this track, with a paltry ROI of just $0.76. Those are surprisingly poor numbers for a barn that has had such success. On the other hand, it appears that he has started primarily cheaper horses at this meet, and Catholic Boy certainly does not fall into that category. He’s the most likely winner at a short price, but I don’t think his connections will be all-out to win this early-season prep.
#7, VOUCH (8-1): Considering everything that he was up against in the Remsen, he actually put in a very encouraging effort to be third behind today’s favorite. Breaking from an outside post position, which is a distinct disadvantage going 9 furlongs at Aqueduct, he had to go wide around both turns in order to maintain forward position. He did ultimately tire in the late stages, but I would argue that he had every right to do so after such a taxing early trip.
Now Vouch is projected to lead this field early, and he should be able to clear from this post position provided that Flameaway isn’t too aggressively ridden from the gate. His connections certainly know how to win at Tampa Bay Downs and he’s already proven that he handles the distance. I don’t think we’re going to get anything close to his morning line price of 8-1, but he is definitely one that I want to include in my wagers, regardless of price.
Catholic Boy (#6) is a deserving favorite, but I don’t think he necessarily has to win this race at a very short price. In my view, the two main challengers are Vino Rosso (#3) and Vouch (#7), and I’m giving the nod to the Todd Pletcher-trainer colt. If he goes off at any price at or above his morning line 3-1 odds, I think he’s a fair win bet.
Exacta Key Box: 3 with 5,6,7
Trifecta: 3 with 6,7 with 1,4,5,6,7
Trifecta: 6,7 with 3 with 1,4,5,6,7