02/27/2012 1:54PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Roman Tiger finds room in Tampa Bay Stakes

Tom Cooley Photography
Roman Tiger gets through along the rail to winthe Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – That the betting favorite in Saturday’s Grade 3, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes was 4-1 indicated how wide open the race was, and when the smoke cleared, a four-horse photo produced a $59.40 winner and four 10-cent superfecta tickets worth $14,174 each.

Roman Tiger, with jockey Angel Serpa putting up a rail-skimming ride for trainer Dennis Manning, got through along the inside into the stretch and then outgamed a host of rivals through a wild stretch run to be up in the final strides by a nose.

Serpa, who found out earlier in the day that his grandmother had passed away Friday, decided to keep his Saturday riding committments to “honor her memory” and said while he knew others were losing ground, his horse was racing comfortably along the rail.

“He was traveling well inside, and I knew if a hole opened up we would have a big chance,” the rider said, “ We picked our way forward, then in the stretch there was room inside. I thought for a minute the hole was going to close, but it opened up again and we got through. I don’t feel lucky, I feel like we had the best horse.”

Noteworthy performances in defeat included Barbaro’s full brother Lentenor, who was a little too keen early while making his first start in two months and wound up a close fifth. El Commodore turned in his second straight powerful effort over the local course while setting the pace to the final strides, while million-dollar-earner Duke of Mischief was shuffled back early and then hung wide while making an outside move before winding up 11th.

White Merlot upsets It’s Me Mom

Trainer Robert Smith spent two days wrestling with the decision to put his filly, White Merlot up against It’s Me Mom, who had been as impressive as any distaff sprinter in the country this winter, in Saturday’s $30,000 co-featured handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Smith knew that bringing his charge back on nine days’ rest for just her second start since July was a gamble, but reasoned White Merlot “came out of that last race so good and It’s Me Mom posted such a big number last time out that if a horse was ever subject to bounce, it would be in this race, and the extra sixteenth definitely plays in our favor.”

Smith was right. White Merlot tracked 1-5 It’s Me Mom through much of the race, then unleashed a powerful late surge leaving the furlong grounds and ran down the favorite in the final strides for a half-length victory while setting a track record of 1:16.02 in the process.

A light schedule is in the future for White Merlot with the Grade 1, $400,000 Princess Rooney over six furlongs at Calder on July 7 the prime objective.

Navarro enjoying strong meet

When the leading trainer is winning at close to a 50 percent clip, as Jamie Ness is doing at this meeting, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are other horsemen on the grounds who are having good meets.

Jorge Navarro is one such trainer. Navarro is winning at 29 percent this meeting, with 17 wins from 55 starters, and is currently second in the trainer standings.

Navarro’s step-grandfather Oswaldo “Ozzie” Canet, was a top horsemen in the Midwest in the 1960s and 70s, winning a number of training titles at Beulah Park and River Downs, and his stepfather, Julian Canet, also trained for a number of years.

Navarro, who took out his trainer’s license in 2008, said he loves training over the surface at Tampa and is working to upgrade his stable as he contemplates moving out of Florida this summer for the first time.

“I’m thinking about Delaware Park and Monmouth, both places interest me and my owners,” Navarro said, “It’s time to consider other options besides Calder in the summer.”