01/30/2014 1:25PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Sam Davis could propel Harpoon into Kentucky Derby picture

Barbara D. Livingston
Harpoon (left) and Vinceremos, working at Palm Meadows, will represent trainer Todd Pletcher in Saturday's Grade 3 Sam F. Davis.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – The worst-case scenario Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs is the Sam F. Davis Stakes will be a nice, competitive race on what shapes up as a terrific 12-race program.

The best case: The winner of the Grade 3 race will run off the TV screen and right into the Kentucky Derby discussion.

[Sam F. Davis Stakes: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

All but one of the eight 3-year-olds in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis are still eligible for a first-level allowance, but at least several have shown the potential to make a huge leap Saturday and make their presence felt the rest of the way to the May 3 Derby at Churchill Downs.

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

One of those is Harpoon, part of the Todd Pletcher brigade at the Palm Meadows training center. After three straight runner-up finishes in maiden company – including an odds-on defeat in October at Belmont Park behind Cairo Prince, the romping winner last weekend of the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park – Harpoon broke loose in his most recent start in winning a one-mile maiden race at Gulfstream by 5 1/2 lengths under Luis Saez.

“We really believe the colt is moving forward in his training,” Pletcher said. “Obviously, he’s held some strong company lines as well.”

Saez will be back aboard Harpoon when the gray son of Tapit breaks from post 1. Saez will be among a handful of top jockeys in from Gulfstream for the Saturday card, which starts at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

Pletcher also will be represented in the Davis by Vinceremos (post 4, Edgar Prado), another last-out maiden winner at Gulfstream.

The rest of the field also ships in from the Miami area. It includes Noble Cornerstone (post 2, Kent Desormeaux), a New York-bred gelding with just two career starts that produced Beyer Speed Figures of 89 and 91, the highest in the field.

“This race will tell us a lot about him,” trainer Wesley Ward said. “He’s trained real well at Gulfstream, and we have a lot of hope for him.”

Others in the cast include Cousin Stephen (post 5, Daniel Centeno), the beaten favorite in a key allowance at Gulfstream in early January; Asserting Bear (post 6, Joe Rocco Jr.), who won a restricted stakes in Canada last fall and therefore is the only one in here not eligible for a first-level allowance; School On a Hill (post 7, Ronnie Allen Jr.), a $3,000 supplementary entry making his first start on dirt; and Matador (post 8, Julien Leparoux), a restricted stakes winner last fall on Woodbine’s turf as a maiden.

The Davis purse actually is $200,000, with as much as $50,000 available for eligible Florida-breds. Imaginethatmom (post 3, Abdiel Jaen), perhaps the longest shot in the field, is the only horse eligible for those additional funds.

The Davis has produced at least one Kentucky Derby starter in nine of the last 10 years, with 2010 being the lone miss. However, unlike last year, when the Davis winner (Falling Sky) received 10 points in the newly created Kentucky Derby points system, the Davis does not carry any Derby points this year. As an alternate allure to horsemen, Tampa has initiated a new $1 million bonus tie-in to the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby and May 3 Kentucky Derby.

Understandably, Tampa officials are disappointed with the Davis being dropped from the points schedule, and some allude to a corporate feud between Tampa and Churchill-owned Calder as an impetus to the change, although officials on both sides have declined to elaborate.

The $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby remains on the Churchill points schedule with 50 points to the winner.

The Davis is carded as the ninth race Saturday, with post time set for 4:25 p.m. HRTV and TVG will have coverage, and the card will be streamed live on DRF.com.

Two other stakes also are on tap: the $100,000 Suncoast (race 8) for 3-year-old fillies and the $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes (race 10) for older turf horses. Both drew full fields.

After cold and rain here Wednesday and Thursday, a major uptick was in the forecast for the weekend, with mostly sunny skies and a high temperature of 79 expected for Saturday.