01/27/2014 3:16PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Matador training well ahead of Sam F. Davis Stakes

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Michael Burns
Matador (left) wins the Cup and Saucer Stakes by a nose over Cool Faith at Woodbine on Oct. 20.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Trainer Mark Casse’s 3-year-olds train at Palm Meadows, but Tampa Bay Downs has become one of the top proving grounds for his up-and-coming horses.

In recent years, Casse has sent runners like Prospective and Dynamic Sky to Tampa Bay Downs for the track’s 3-year-old stakes series. Dynamic Sky won the Pasco Stakes here last season, and Prospective won the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby.

While races at the Oldsmar oval have not led to a victory in the Kentucky Derby for Casse, as they did for Street Sense and Super Saver, he has a talented Malibu Moon colt named Matador who will try to change that.

Casse and owner John Oxley, of Monarchos fame, thought so highly of Matador that they entered the colt in the $150,000 Vandal Stakes for his first start in August at Woodbine. Matador was bothered at the break of that six-furlong sprint and did not get untracked until late, finishing fourth.

Matador then tried turf in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes in September and closed late in that one-mile race to be third. He stayed on turf in October to score a front-running victory in the $250,000 Cup and Saucer.

After a troubled trip in the Coronation Futurity on Woodbine’s Polytrack, Matador was given a short respite, moving to Palm Meadows with the rest of Casse’s string for the winter.

The young runner has been training very solidly, with a string of five-furlong drills, and last Saturday posted his final work for this Saturday’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes, a bullet five-furlong work in 1:00.65 that pleased Casse.

“He worked in a minute and change, finished out strong, and looked very good doing it,” Casse said. “He’s been training very well over the dirt since he got here, and to be honest, I’ve felt all along that when we got him on dirt, we would see his best.

“A lot of horses who race well over the Poly and turf don’t like dirt, and vice versa, and in this colt’s case, I’ve felt all along that dirt would be his preferred surface.”

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

With four stakes starts in as many career races, it would appear that Matador’s connections thought highly of him from the start.

“Yes, he’s been on our A team from an early juncture,” Casse said. “He’s got a very nice way of going. He seems to be adaptable, and while he hasn’t shown it in all of his races, he’s got a very high cruising speed.

“Of course, this is the time of year where your young horses tell you just what they’re capable of and what they’re not. That’s why we’re interested in seeing what he shows us in the Sam Davis. If he brings the talent he’s shown us on the dirt in the morning to the races, then maybe we’ve got a horse we can have some fun with this spring and summer.”

Two-man jockeys’ race

The race for leading rider continues to be a two-man affair, as Ronnie Allen Jr. and Antonio Gallardo continue to ride in fine form. Allen, who posted a four-bagger Sunday, leads the way with 40 wins, while Gallardo, who had another strong week, is second with 34 victories.

Daniel Centeno has been making steady progress after arriving late and now has 20 wins at the meet, while the injured Fernando De La Cruz, the early leader, has 23.

Bettors would do well to consider the mounts of Victor Lebron. Lebron, who won more than 100 races a year for seven straight seasons before slumping to 69 tallies in 2013, is as talented as they come and won a race here Sunday in his first day on the scene.

The trainers’ race is a dandy, with Jamie Ness leading the pack with 15 wins, followed by Gerald Bennett, who won two races with promising maidens Sunday to give him 13 tallies. Bennett’s son, Dale, ranks third with 12 wins, with Dennis Ward, who also had a training double Sunday, one win back with 11 and tied with Jason DaCosta.