01/13/2011 3:17PM

Manicero will use Pasco as stepping-stone to Sam Davis


OLDSMAR, Fla. – They call it the Skyway Festival, this two-race series Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. Twin $75,000 stakes, the Pasco and Gasparilla, purport to serve as bridges to more important races later in this meet, although it remains to be seen what degree of impact either will carry toward those longer and richer events.

The Pasco, for 3-year-old males at seven furlongs, figures to have Miami shipper Manicero as the favorite, and trainer Leo Azpurua Jr. is tentatively looking at the race as a building block toward the Feb. 12 Sam F. Davis at Tampa four weeks later. Manicero, a winner in 3 of 4 career starts, is owned by the trainer’s father, Leo Sr.

“My dad has been weighing all of our many options,” said Azpurua. “We considered the Holy Bull,” set for a mile at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30, “but at the present time we thought this would be in the best interest of the horse. We’re trying to get these races in him back-to-back and go from there.”

Manicero, with Luis Saez riding again, was assigned post 5 in a field of 10. A Florida-bred colt by Mass Media, Manicero will be shooting for a third straight stakes victory after capturing the restricted Nov. 13 Jack Price Juvenile at Calder and the Dec. 26 Inaugural at Tampa, both times as the favorite.

The 1 1/16-mile Davis has been mentioned by trainer Todd Pletcher as a possible comeback spot for Uncle Mo, the likely divisional champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite, although the subsequent Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 is the more plausible target.

While Azpurua is mulling whether Manicero is route-worthy, trainer Rusty Arnold has pretty much decided that sprinting will be best for Depeche Chat, perhaps the top challenger Saturday to Manicero. Depeche Chat, a sharp winner of his only career start at Churchill Downs, will have Rosemary Homeister Jr. aboard from post 9.

“I’ve got reservations about his ability to get a distance, so this is the logical kind of race for him,” said Arnold.

Meanwhile, the Gasparilla, for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs, has a standout in Devilish Lady, whose eight-length score in the Dec. 26 Sandpiper marked her fourth victory from her last five starts and scared off some of her potential opposition. As with Manicero, Devilish Lady was to be vanned here from Calder.

“She came out of the last race in great shape,” trainer Antonio Sano said through an interpreter. Sano said he briefly considered the Jan. 5 Old Hat at Gulfstream, “but that came back too fast, so we decided to wait for this. If she does like we hope, we’ll take at look at the Forward Gal” on Jan. 30 at Gulfstream.

At Tampa, the Gasparilla leads to the Feb. 12 Florida Oaks and March 12 Suncoast.

Devilish Lady, with leading jockey Daniel Centeno to ride, was assigned the outside post in an eight-horse field. Perhaps her main opposition will come from Itcouldbesunshine (post 2, Homeister), the only supplementary nomination to either race.

The Gasparilla, named for the famous annual festival in Tampa, is carded as the seventh race, while the Pasco, which recognizes adjacent Pasco County, is the ninth of 11 races on a card that starts at 12:25 p.m. Eastern.