Tampa Bay Downs’ first stop on the Kentucky Derby trail, Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes is one of those races where you’re best served paying more attention to the horses outside the winner’s circle.

Classic Causeway-Sam F Davis
Classic Causeway and his front-running style come into the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes as the 3/1 morning-line favorite. (Image: Kentucky West Racing)

Take last year. Candy Man Rocket won the race in typical Davis fashion. He was near the lead the entire race, pulling away to win by 2 ½ lengths. But when it came to finding a spot in the Derby starting gate, Candy Man Rocket was nowhere to be found.

But the third and fifth place horses from that race: Hidden Stash and Known Agenda – the 3/2 favorite — were present and accounted for at Churchill Downs. After winning the Florida Derby, Known Agenda finished a troubled ninth in the Derby. Hidden Stash finished 13th.

How about 2019. Your winner, Well Defined, enjoyed a nice career: nine wins in 20 starts and more than $778,000 in earnings. He would go on to finish a well-beaten eighth in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby a month later and never sniff the Triple Crown trail again. Meanwhile, you may have heard of the horse who finished fifth that day – 13 lengths behind Well Defined.

Knicks Go, the just-retired 2021 Horse of the Year.

Who will be this year’s Catholic Boy or Vino Rosso?

We come to 2018 and Flameaway. He too, led at every call in this front-runner’s race. After setting a stakes record for the 1 1/16 miles (1:42.44), Flameaway finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby. 13th in the Derby. Then, he flamed away. Meanwhile, your runner-up: Catholic Boy, won the Belmont Invitational on turf, then the Travers on dirt. Your third-place horse: Vino Rosso, won the Wood Memorial, finished fourth in the Belmont, then won three times as a 4-year-old, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his final race.

The message is clear. Pay attention to everyone. Pay more attention to everyone not going to the winner’s circle after the race. But as you do, understand no Davis alum has ever won the Derby in the 42-year history of this race.

“(The Sam F. Davis) is a good race to get your horse to the next level and it’s a great race to win on its own. But we are looking down the road,” trailer Dale Romans told Tampa Bay Downs’ Mike Henry about Howling Time, the 5/1 second choice in the 12-horse (one also eligible) field.

The Davis is a race where you want to front-run the field

Howling Time opened his career with two victories as a juvenile. He stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall. Romans chalked that up to the fact “no one else wanted the lead and I don’t think that’s where this horse wants to run.”

Again, being on or near the lead is where you want to be in the Davis. Racing writer and podcaster Ron Flatter and Equibase illustrated three of the last four Davis winners were no worse than third at any call. The outlier was 2020’s Sole Volante, the epitome of a stone-cold closer. He came from 15 ½ lengths back after a half-mile to win by a half-length.

This is why Classic Causeway is your 3/1 morning-line favorite. A product of Giant Causeway’s final crop after his 2018 death, Classic Causeway hit the board in all three of his races, breaking his maiden at first ask in a maiden special weight at Saratoga last September. He’d proceed to finish third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, then runner-up to Smile Happy in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

In each race, Classic Causeway has been no worse than fourth at any call after the start.

Classic Causeway brings classic form

“I feel if he runs his race, he will certainly fit with these horses,” trainer Brian Lynch told Henry. “He has a high cruising speed and he has gotten much bigger and stronger as a 3-year-old. He has the tactical speed to not be very far from the engine room, and hopefully he will be first to the wire.

Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes/Tampa Bay Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Rum Runner, 20/1 (Romero Ramsay Maragh/Patrick Biancone)
  2. Unpredictable Bay, 20/1 (Alonso Quinonez/Alnaz Ali)
  3. Classic Causeway, 3/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Brian Lynch)
  4. Golden Glider, 12/1 (Antonio Gallardo/Mark Casse)
  5. God of Love, 10/1 (Rafael Hernandez/Mark Casse)
  6. Trademark, 15/1 (Daniel Centeno/Victoria Oliver)
  7. Make It Big, 9/2 (Jose Ortiz/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  8. Shipsational, 6/1 (Javier Castellano/Edward Barker)
  9. Howling Time, 5/1 (Joe Talamo/Dale Romans
  10. Volcanic, 12/1 (Edwin Gonzalez/Mark Casse)
  11. Strike Hard, 6/1 (Leonel Reyes/Matthew Williams)
  12. Kitten Mischief, 12/1 (Manny Franco/Jonathan Thomas)
  13. Little Vic (AE), 15/1 (Paco Lopez/Juan Carlos Avila)

Another to watch in this eclectic field is Springboard Mile winner Make It Big (9/2), who opens his 3-year-old season two months after winning that Derby prep at Remington Park. That was his second stakes victory, one that came via a gritty stretch duel with runner-up Osbourne. Even with that, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was surprised by the depth of this Davis field.

“I talked it over a few weeks ago with Rick Sacco, the racing manager for (owner) Red Oak, and he recommended the (Sam F. Davis) would be a good choice for his 3-year-old debut,” Joseph said to Henry. “We didn’t expect the race to come up this tough, but I’m excited to see how he stacks up.”