01/23/2016 4:59PM

Morning Fire gets elusive stakes victory in Pasco Stakes

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Morning Fire, ridden by Daniel Centeno, wins the Pasco Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths Saturday.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Morning Fire finally got his stakes win, and he certainly looked good doing it.

On Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, Morning Fire turned back a bid from the sharp maiden winner Epic Journey down the stretch to score by 1 1/2 lengths in the $63,500 Pasco Stakes, a seven-furlong test for 3-year-olds. Morning Fire, a Pennsylvania-bred son of Friesan Fire, had finished second in all four of his stakes tries during his juvenile season in 2015, including three restricted stakes in his home state.

In his final start as a 2-year-old, he finished a distant second to Bird of Trey in the $101,000 Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Parx Racing on Dec. 5. But on Saturday, with Daniel Centeno aboard for the first time, Morning Fire was second to none, setting the pace and finishing in 1:24.76 on a track rated “good.” 

“He broke really sharp, and I went to the rail and waited for somebody to go, but he relaxed on the lead and never looked back,” said Centeno, who got his third win of the day in the Pasco.

Trainer Keith Nations said that Morning Fire is a candidate for the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles here Feb. 13.

“If he comes out of this race good, then we’ll go in the next stakes, and we’ll finally get the two turns that we’ve been looking for,” Nations said. “We think he’s bred to go two turns. We actually had to push this horse to get him to sprint. Now he’s showing more speed than we thought he had. But we think that when he goes longer, he has a big stride and he’ll relax, so he’ll have no problem doing that.”

In the Pasco, Morning Fire hustled away from the gate after breaking from the inside post position in the field of 10 and carved out fractions of 22.98 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.03 for a half-mile, with Epic Journey and jockey Pablo Morales in closest pursuit. Morning Fire led by a length at the top of the lane, and Epic Journey momentarily appeared to be gaining on the leader, but Morning Fire wouldn’t let him go by.  

Nations said he didn’t tell Centeno to put the horse on the lead.

“Danny made that decision,” Nations said. “We always thought he was a little bit better just off the pace, but Danny said he broke good and wanted to go on, and the speed was holding today, so he made that call, and obviously it was a winning call.”

Morning Fire paid $10.80 as the second choice in the field. He has three wins in eight starts for $164,713 in earnings for owner Mercedes Stables LLC. The favored Hand of Power, an impressive maiden winner last out Nov. 14 at Churchill Downs for trainer Ian Wilkes, could only finish eighth.

Epic Journey, trained by Anthony Granitz, was coming off a 2 1/4-length win here Dec. 19 in a $22,700 maiden special weight race. He held second on Saturday over Canadian Juvenile Stakes winner Awesome Slate, who was followed by Jay’s Way, Flashy Kyem, Formal Summation, Peppi the Hunter, Hand of Power, Fabourg Marigny, and The Right Thing.