12/11/2008 12:00AM

Sam F. Davis gains prestige

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Tampa Bay Downs, which begins its 94-day meeting Saturday, will be a more viable option for horsemen trying to reach the Kentucky Derby this year now that the Sam F. Davis Stakes has received Grade 3 status. The Davis, along with the meet's centerpiece, the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, gives trainers two chances at the meet to increase their horses' graded earnings and earn a berth in the Derby.

"We are very pleased with the actions of the graded stakes committee, as the Sam Davis has become an integral part of our stakes program," said Peter Berube, the track's vice president and general manager.

The 1 1/16-mile Davis, which will be run Feb. 14 as part of the annual Festival Preview program, had its purse boosted by $25,000 to $225,000. It will be run four weeks before the March 14 Tampa Bay Derby, a Grade 3, 1 1/16-mile race worth $300,000. In recent years the races have attracted a number of top 3-year-olds, topped by Street Sense, who won the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby and then went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

The Davis anchors a strong card that also includes the Grade 3 Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf and the $75,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The supporting features on Tampa Bay Derby Day include the Grade 3, $200,000 Florida Oaks and the Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf.

Other programs of note include Florida Cup Day on April 4, which features six $85,000 races for Florida-breds, and Cotillion Day on Dec. 27, when the $65,000 Inaugural and Sandpiper stakes top a card that will be exclusively for 2-year-old runners.

In all, the Tampa Bay stakes schedule consists of 26 races worth a combined $2.7 million.

Changes to the wagering lineup this meet include rolling daily doubles and a Super High Five wager.

While fans will note few changes to the plant, the backstretch has undergone a major modernization, as each stall has been fitted with a water-permeable liner and has a central drainage system that allows for more efficient disposal of waste and water. This is expected to result in considerable savings for horsemen in bedding costs, while also cutting costs for the track in disposal expenses.

The trainers' race this meet should be interesting as Jamie Ness, who set a record for races won here last season, is back to defend his title against Gerald Bennett, who comes into this meeting off a successful summer that saw him finish second in the standings at Presque Isle Downs, where his horses earned more than $800,000 in purses.

Others who should make their presence felt include Ron Allen Sr., a mainstay who has a strong outfit that includes some promising youngsters; Kirk Ziadie, a former leading trainer here who is expected to have a bigger impact this season than last; Shirley Girten-Drake, who has a string here with her son Tim; and regulars Lynne Scace and Kathleen O'Connell.

Daniel Centeno will return to defend his riding title. He set a record here last season for races won but faces several strong challengers, including Ron Allen Jr., who returned to the saddle here midway through last year's meeting after a four-year absence and went on to have a banner year, finishing third in the rider standings at Presque Isle. Rosemary Homeister Jr., who is on the verge of winning her 2,000th career race and finished second in the standings here last meeting, should also be a force, along with Carlos Montalvo and Mike Allen, who won 47 races at Presque Isle this past summer.

The $65,000 Lightning City Stakes, a five-furlong turf sprint for fillies and mares, is the opening-day feature. Bucky's Prayer, a hard-hitting mare who will be shooting for her fourth win from nine starts over the local grass course, tops a large field in what shapes up as a wide-open affair.

Trained by Gerald Bennett, Bucky's Prayer will be making just her third start since April. Two starts back, she won the $100,000 Satin N Lace Stakes over the artificial Tapeta surface at Presque Isle Downs. In her last, the Nicole's Dream at Arlington, she lost her best chance after becoming fractious and striking the side of the starting gate at the start.

Charlie Papa, who enters off a winning effort in an overnight stakes at Calder, and What She Said, who has won her last three starts at Laurel, are the prime challengers.

Taletobetold, who in her last two starts won a turf allowance sprint at Churchill Downs and was second, beaten a neck, in the Franklin County Stakes at Keeneland, also merits respect.