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With the 2018 Kentucky Derby less than three months away it is time for the contenders to get out on the race track and prove whether they should be taken seriously on the Derby trail. In the $250,000, Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; Catholic Boy, Vino Rosso, Flameaway, and Hollywood Star have the opportunity to do just that.

Jonathan Thomas, the trainer of the likely morning line favorite Catholic Boy, said, “It is still very early in these 3-year-old’s lives and even though they are arguably on their most important path, career-wise, they are basically teenagers who are still growing.”

Last year the Sam F. Davis was won by McCraken with Tapwrit, the eventual Belmont Stakes winner, getting second. Destin was the 2016 victor and he went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby and missed taking the Belmont by a nose. Most years the winner of the Davis goes on to compete in the Run for the Roses.

The Sam F. Davis offers Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers [10-4-2-1]. Since 2006, trainer Todd Pletcher has won this race six times.

The Davis has been carded as race 10 out of 12 with a post time of 4:52pm ET. The field of seven is listed below with projected morning line odds.

1) Navy Armed Guard [ML – 20-1 – Midshipman – Scott/Castanon – 5: M-2-2 – $31,325] Still a maiden, this $47,000 purchase from the Ocala April two-year-old sale, is up against it in this very tough field. To his credit he did run second to Mississippi back in November. He has tried turf and dirt, but has not been able to break through in five tries. Still a maiden.

2) Flameaway [ML – 6-1 – Scat Daddy – Casse/Lezcano – 6: 4-0-0 – $314,834] First purchased for $150,000 as a yearling in the Keeneland January sale, he was pinhooked eight months later for $400,000 in August at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga. Primarily entered in turf races, he has won twice on wet dirt tracks when the races were taken off the grass. Both of those wins were in stakes with one coming in the Bourbon, which was slated as a grade three turf event. Flameaway came back from an eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to win the Kittens Joy on the grass at Gulfstream Park. In his lone try on a fast dirt track, he had a troubled trip in the star-studded Iroquois last year and ended up a well-beaten sixth. It is time for trainer Mark Casse to find out if Flameaway is a dirt or turf runner. He likes to run on the lead and that should play to his advantage. Big test on the dirt.

3) Vino Rosso [ML – 5-2 – Curlin – Pletcher/Velazquez – 2: 2-0-0 – $48,000] Trained by Todd Pletcher, Vino Rosso is owned by two of Pletcher’s high profile owners in Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable. This $410,000 Keeneland yearling purchase is unbeaten in two career starts. Heavily bet in both starts, he won first at Aqueduct in November going seven furlongs and then took a first-level allowance at Tampa Bay going two turns. This one clearly has some talent and is ready to face the challenge of the Derby trail. He had perfect stalking trips under Kentucky Derby winning rider John Velazquez in both of the starts. In his maiden win he had to battle against two rivals, put them away, and cruised to victory. Just how good is this one?

4) Septimius Severus [ML – 20-1 – Roman Ruler – Weaver/J. Ortiz – 2: 1-1-0 – $45,240] Septimius Severus will be making his first start going two turns in the Sam F Davis. He broke his maiden at Aqueduct in November and then got a second last month in a Gulfstream Park allowance. This is a major test in class for the $37,000 yearling purchase. A major step up in class. 

5) Hollywood Star [ML – 4-1 – Malibu Moon – Romans/Rosario – 4: 1-2-0 – $116,520] This $550,000 Keeneland yearling purchase has lots of graded stakes experience. He placed in the Saratoga Special (G2) and the Iroquois (G3) as a 2-year-old. He picked up 4 Derby points in that race at Churchill Downs. During the summer at Saratoga, I was talking to Dale Romans about his young horses and at that time he said that Hollywood Star was the one he liked best. In the Breeders’ Cup, he was not very competitive, but he has been training smartly for this 2018 debut. The Sam F. Davis should provide a measuring stick for the quality of this one. He will likely have to battle down the stretch with the other top ones. Can he get a big Derby Trail victory?

6) Catholic Boy [ML – 3-2 – More Than Ready – Thomas/Franco – 4: 3-0-0 – $314,400] Catholic Boy has never run a bad race in his career which began with three runs on the turf. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream in July, won a Grade 3 at Saratoga, and then was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) where he was beaten just over a length for all the money. He transitioned to the dirt with panache when he won the Remsen (G3) by 4 ¾ lengths picking up 10 Derby qualifying points. That performance was flattered this past weekend when Avery Island returned to Aqueduct for a convincing win in the Withers (G3). Young trainer Jonathan Thomas honed his craft under Todd Pletcher, where he certainly learned how to get a horse ready for a big race off a layoff. It appears that there will be a reasonable early pace to set things up for his closing running style. With the turn of the calendar, it is time to start learning just how good these 3-year-olds really are and the Sam F. Davis will be a good test for Catholic Boy. The horse to beat faces a challenge.           

7) Vouch [ML – 8-1 – Yes It’s True – Delacour/D. Centeno – 2: 1-0-1 – $47,800] Vouch was last seen on the track in December in the Remsen at Aqueduct where he ran third behind Catholic Boy and Avery Island, which is pretty good company. He won his maiden race at Laurel in front running fashion, but could not get to the lead in the Remsen. His presence in here means that there should be a solid early pace between him and Flameaway. He has some talent, but this looks like a tough spot for a comeback. Should provide a solid pace.                                                                                                                                                                                                          

ANALYSIS:

Clearly, Catholic Boy is the horse to beat in the Sam F. Davis, but a victory here is far from a sure thing. Hollywood Star has a similar running style and the two of them should be making their closing move together. Vino Rosso will be in a stalking position and will have the opportunity to make the first run at the lead. Flameaway is the wild card. With his front running style, he and Vouch should provide a brisk early pace to set things up for the closers.

Trainer Thomas will have Catholic Boy ready to run and Vino Rosso could easily give Pletcher his seventh victory in the Sam F. Davis. The Dale Romans’ runners have not shown their best this year, so that gives me concern about Hollywood Star.

With a realistic pace expected, the closers will have an ideal set-up. Vino Rosso should get the lead first and Catholic Boy and Hollywood Star will need to run him down. Let’s make it a simple Exacta box with Vino Rosso and Catholic Boy.

Catholic Boy Photo Credit: NYRA/Susie Raisher