02/14/2009 1:00AM

Now graded, Sam F. Davis a true Derby prep


Before the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs was finally awarded its much-deserved graded status this year, the long-standing fixture had been best known as a prep for the track's marquee race, the Tampa Bay Derby.

But now that the $225,000 Sam F. Davis is a Grade 3 race itself, it takes on added meaning - as a legitimate Kentucky Derby prep.

Saturday's 29th running of the Sam F. Davis has attracted a trio of 3-year-olds based in south Florida who are on the Kentucky Derby trail - Free Country, Atomic Rain, and A.P. Cardinal. They top a field of 11 horses entered in the Sam F. Davis, the main event on a card that also includes the Grade 3 Endeavour and ungraded Suncoast stakes.

Despite being ungraded, the list of Sam F. Davis winners and also-rans is a strong one. Trainer Todd Pletcher won back-to-back renewals in 2006 and 2007 with Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Saturday. Both the second- and third-place finishers from last year's edition, Big Truck and Smooth Air, went on to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Free Country and Atomic Rain will renew acquaintances in the race on Saturday after finishing first and second, respectively, a neck apart under first-level allowance conditions going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 8.

Free Country is undefeated in two starts. A son of Big Country, he rallied from far back to win his career debut going six furlongs over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs by 1 1/4 lengths on Nov. 15.

"He still has things to prove and this race is a good spot for him," said his trainer, Ken McPeek, who won the 2000 Sam F. Davis with Go Lib Go. "Obviously, getting some graded-stakes money is really important and was a major consideration in bringing him here.

"Hopefully, he'll like the track, and if he does we may well bring him back next month for the Tampa Bay Derby."

Kent Desormeaux will take his regular seat aboard Free Country on Saturday.

Atomic Rain turned in a game performance in defeat behind Free Country after setting a contested pace. In his previous start, Atomic Rain finished a well-beaten second in the Grade 2 Remsen behind Old Fashioned, the No. 1-rated 3-year-old in this week's edition of Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch.

Trainer Kelly Breen shipped Atomic Rain to Tampa well in advance of the race to get a feel for the surface, and Atomic Rain breezed a half mile in 49.80 seconds over the track last weekend.

"We try to take every edge we can and I think being there 10 days beforehand is an advantage we might have over our main competition," said Breen. "I think there will be some speed in here for us to stalk, and I'm putting blinkers on him because he does have a tendency to look around. I'm really excited, and I think we're in a good spot Saturday to win a big race."

John Velazquez, who rode Atomic Rain for the first time in his 3-year-old debut, will make the trip from Gulfstream Park to Tampa for the assignment.

A.P. Cardinal also went 1 1/8 miles under first-level allowance conditions at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, finishing second behind Free Country's former stablemate, Danger to Society, in the second division of the split event. Only .03 seconds separated the final times of the two divisions. That outing was the first for A.P. Cardinal since he was moved to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's barn following his last start as a 2-year-old.

Musket Man and Top Seed are among other top contenders in a field that also includes Medaglia d'Onore, General Quarters, Player's List, Mitchell Park, Cliff's Future, and Sumo.