02/13/2016 3:14PM

Destin shows more focus to win Sam F. Davis Stakes

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Tom Keyser
Destin, ridden by John Velazquez, scores by 2 1/4 lengths in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Saturday.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Changes in his equipment, his jockey, and the venue brought out the best in Destin on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, where the gray colt rallied from just off the pace to win the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over Rafting. The race was the key local prep for the biggest race of the meet, the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, a race that offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers.

Destin, who sold for $400,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in September 2014, entered the Sam F. Davis off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Jan. 16, when he was beaten five lengths by Kentucky Derby prospect Mo Tom. With John Velazquez aboard for the first time Saturday, Destin took a huge step forward, getting his first stakes win and giving trainer Todd Pletcher his sixth win in the last 10 editions of the Sam F. Davis Stakes.

Destin ($10) settled into fourth place early in the race as Morning Fire, the winner of the Pasco Stakes here last month, took the field of six 3-year-olds through a quarter-mile in 23.92 seconds and a half-mile in 48.16. Destin moved up three wide entering the final turn, split rivals at the quarter pole, and drew off down the stretch, stopping the clock for 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.67.  

It was the second-fastest edition of the Sam F. Davis Stakes in the race's 36-year history, trailing only the 1:43.54 mark put up by General Quarters in 2009.

“He kind of ran a little sketchy in New Orleans,” said Ginny DePasquale, one of Pletcher’s assistants. “He went to the front and then dropped back. He was trying to do the same thing [Saturday], but Johnny really kept at him and kept him in between horses, where he was more focused, and we changed the type of blinkers he was wearing, so he was definitely more focused today.

“He had French cup blinkers on before, but we just put the blinkers with the little peeps on this time, where he could kind of look around and see the other horses more instead of stopping and waiting, or whatever he was doing in New Orleans.”

Rafting, making his first start since winning the Smooth Air Stakes in November at Gulfstream Park West, also moved three wide around the final turn and wound up second, 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Morning Fire, who held third by a neck over Awesome Slate. They were followed by Gettysburg, who was favored following a maiden win last month at Gulfstream Park, and Whatawonderflworld.

Destin, a son of Giant’s Causeway owned by Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC, has won two of his four starts for $148,215 in earnings.  He had been training sharply at Palm Beach Downs in southern Florida, turning in a bullet half-mile workout in 47.60 seconds Jan. 30.

“He definitely needs the blinkers," Velazquez said. "He was green in everything – looking at the horses sideways, and when he got to the quarter pole, he didn’t know what to do, and I had to get after him. At least he put in a nice run, but he didn’t go forward to get away from the horses, just kind of waited and not really running the way he was supposed to, but still good enough to win today. He has to put his mind into the business.”

DePasquale said Destin likely isn’t done racing in Oldsmar.

“I’m sure he’s going to come back for the Tampa Bay Derby,” she said. “He seems to like the track. I was pleased with the outcome for sure. I think he took a giant step forward from his New Orleans race.”