Three years ago, a horse named Flameaway captured the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The Mark Casse-trained colt set a stakes record for the 1 1/16 miles – 1:42.44.

Smiley Sobotka-Sam F. Davis
Smiley Sobotka broke his maiden at Keeneland in October. He owns that win and two seconds in three races coming into Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. (Image: Coady Photography)

Flameaway would finish second in the Tampa Bay Derby. He would win a minor stakes as a 4-year-old, then pretty much run to his name and flame away.

The second- and third-place horses in that Sam F. Davis, however, didn’t flame away. Runner-up Catholic Boy won the Belmont Invitational on turf, then the Travers back on dirt – two foundations of a $2.1 million career.

As for Vino Rosso, the show horse that day, he finished fourth in that Tampa Bay Derby, won the Wood Memorial and finished fourth in that year’s Belmont Stakes. As a 4-year-old, Vino Rosso won three times – including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his final race. That put an exclamation point on a $4.8 million career.

You Never Know Who Emerges from Sam F. Davis

The moral of this story for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis: pay attention to everyone. Otherwise, you might miss horses like Tapwrit, who finished second in the 2017 Davis. He went on to win the Tampa Bay Derby and the Belmont later that spring.

Dating to 1981 and joining the Derby trail in 2013, the Sam F. Davis serves as a prep for the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. It offers 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers. Ten horses during the 2010s climbed from the Davis to the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Derby, most recently last year’s winner – Sole Volante.

This year’s 12-horse Sam F. Davis field features only two stakes winners. Those are the Bill Mott-conditioned Nova Rags (4/1), who won the Black-Type Pasco Stakes three weeks ago, and Florida-bred gelding Boca Boy (5/1). He captured the Florida Sire in Reality Stakes, a restricted race for Florida-breds.

Don’t Stake Your Sam F. Davis Stake With These Two

Let’s dismiss both here. Nova Rags is 2-for-3, but that Pasco win came over seven furlongs against a weak field. In the Grade 3 Nashua, he finished fourth – by 14 ½ lengths, with an anemic 67 Equibase Speed Figure. As for Boca Boy, he does bring some early speed, along with more than $300,000 in earnings. But he hasn’t broken 80 yet on Equibase, running against soft fields.

That housekeeping out of the way, who warrants attention in the Sam F. Davis? Start with favorite Smiley Sobotka (5/2). He finished second by three-quarters a length in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club as the weaker half of a dual entry. That was clearly Smiley Sobotka’s best race, bringing an 89 Equibase.

Respectable speed figure aside, this doesn’t look nearly as impressive now as it did then. The third-place horse, Arabian Prince, finished a distant fifth at the Lecomte Stakes next out. Fourth-place Swill finished a miserable fourth in the Jerome, melting in the stretch. Sittin On Go finished a disinterested sixth in his next outing. Smiley Sobotka can set a strong pace. Whether he can sustain it at a familiar distance in this field is the key question.

Known Agenda Comes in Battle-Tested

That brings us to Known Agenda (6/1), one of two Todd Pletcher offerings. Pletcher owns six Davis titles, four more than any other trainer. With Known Agenda, Pletcher has a great opportunity for No. 7. The Curlin progeny by far owns the best resume coming in. While he’s hit the board in all three starts (1-1-1), it’s who he’s hit the board against that makes him a great overlay here.

In his Belmont Park debut last September, Known Agenda finished second by 1 ¾ lengths to Highly Motivated (currently 30/1 on William Hill Nevada’s Derby futures board). Highly Motivated parlayed that into winning the Nyquist Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup undercard.

Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes/Tampa Bay Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Hidden Stash, 10/1 (Hector Diaz Jr./Victoria Oliver)
  2. Joe Man Joe, 20/1 (Huber Villa-Gomez/David Fisher)
  3. Known Agenda, 6/1 (John Velazquez/Todd Pletcher)
  4. Millean, 12/1 (Roberto Alvarado/Todd Pletcher)
  5. Smiley Sobotka, 5/2 (Daniel Centeno/Dale Romans)
  6. Runway Magic, 8/1 (Julien Leparoux/George Arnold II)
  7. Boca Boy, 5/1 (Antonio Gallardo/Cheryl Winebaugh)
  8. Nova Rags, 4/1 (Sammy Camacho/Bill Mott)
  9. Candy Man Rocket, 10/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  10. Ricochet, 15/1 (Jesus Castanon/Kelsey Danner)
  11. Lucky Law, 20/1 (Robby Albarado/Patrick Biancone)
  12. Last Investment, 30/1 (Ademar Santos/Stacy Hendry)

Next out, Known Agenda beat Greatest Honour by a head over nine furlongs in an Aqueduct maiden special weight. Greatest Honour – now 15/1 at Circa Sports and 16/1 at William Hill — went on to win last week’s Holy Bull by nearly six lengths. That pair was 21 lengths clear of third-place Overtook.

Last out, Known Agenda finished a distant third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes. His 86 Equibase in the Aqueduct slop matched his career best – all three of which run from 83 to 86.

Candy Man Rocket Jets Up in Class Here

The only other intriguing prospect here is Mott’s second offering: Candy Man Rocket (10/1). He jumps from a 9 ¼-length maiden win over 6 ½ furlongs at Gulfstream to a graded stakes. And Candy Man Rocket does this while tackling two turns and 8 ½ furlongs for the first time.

His pedigree as a Candy Ride progeny bodes well for distance. Here, he bodes well for stuffing underneath in exotics.

The pick: Known Agenda. Even in an inexperienced field like this, Smiley Sobotka is as beatable a favorite as there is. Even if you factor in his nine-length loss in the Remsen, when you focus on Known Agenda’s overall body of work and who that body of work came against, this becomes one of the easier handicap efforts of the weekend.