04/02/2004 12:00AM

Very Formal M.D. inherits role of favorite

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In an age when small fields are the rule rather than the exception in stakes races, Tampa Bay Downs offers a refreshing change for the bettor when it presents its second annual Florida Cup Day on Sunday.

The Florida Cup is a series of six stakes, geared toward but not restricted to registered Florida-breds. All of the races are $75,000-added and each has drawn full and competitive fields.

The most attractive race on the card figures to be the first of the six stakes, the seven-furlong Sophomore, which drew a field that included Sir Oscar, Very Formal M.D., and Weigelia. Unfortunately, a foot abscess has forced trainer Marty Wolfson to scratch Sir Oscar, who would likely have been favored after having run in both the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes.

The defection of Sir Oscar makes Very Formal M.D. the one to beat off his sixth-place finish in his two-turn debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. Very Formal M.D. set the pace through midstretch in the Grade 3 Tampa Derby before succumbing in the final sixteenth in a stellar field that included Kentucky Derby hopefuls Limehouse, Mustanfar, and Swingforthefences. He had won his two previous starts, at Gulfstream.

Weigelia has not started since finishing fifth behind Limehouse in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes on Feb. 14. In his previous start, Weigelia extended the odds-on Frisky Spider to late stretch before finishing second in a second-level allowance.

Pirate King, an undefeated son of Seacliff, heads the Tampa Bay-based contingent that also includes War Image and Wire Bound. Pirate King has won his two starts by an average of six lengths. Pirate King is owned and bred by track owner Stella Thayer.

The Cherokee River Turf Classic, last of the six stakes on the card, drew a full field of 12, including defending champion Guardianofthegate and trainer Bill Mott's Grade 3 winner Orchard Park.

Guardianofthegate rallied from just off the pace to a 1 1/2-length victory over Sir Brian's Sword for trainer Don Rice in the inaugural Cherokee River Turf Classic. Now under the care of Kitty Cheeks, Guardianofthegate enters the race off a two-length optional claiming victory at Tampa.

Orchard Park finished sixth in the 2003 Cherokee River Turf Classic and remains winless since capturing the Virginia Derby in July 2002. He finished a tiring fourth in a strong field of open allowance runners at Gulfstream on Feb. 23.

Other key contenders include Restage, Attack the Books, Ricardo A., and Drink a Toast.

The Sophomore Turf at 1 1/16 miles on the grass for 3-year-olds is led by Capias and Keystone Point.

Capias comes off a troubled fourth-place finish making his turf debut in Gulfstream's Caltech Stakes.

Keystone Point won his only turf start by 7 1/4 lengths for trainer Kirk Ziadie, who is winning races at nearly a 50 percent clip this season at Tampa.

The Sophomore Fillies attracted a full field of 12 3-year-old fillies, with the locally based Tiz a Dancer likely to be favored over Gulf shippers Code of Justice and Prohibido Olividar.

Tiz a Dancer won her career debut by 17 1/2 lengths but could not repeat the effort when stretched out around two turns and put on grass 18 days later. Trainer Kathleen O'Connell had been pointing Tiz a Dancer toward the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream but had to cancel those plans when Tiz a Dancer contracted a minor illness that forced her to miss training time.

"This filly is a lot like Ivanavinalot," said O'Connell. "She's got a world of talent but no mind and absolutely hated the grass."

Code of Justice had her three-race winning streak snapped when beaten a head in a second-level allowance race in her last start.

Wolfson will have to keep Sir Oscar in the barn but is well represented in the Distaff Turf by Stay Forever, a multiple-stakes-winning grass specialist who was overmatched in the Grade 3 The Very One Handicap on Feb. 28. Stay Forever will turn back to 1 1/16 miles, a distance at which the 7-year-old is undefeated in five starts.

The locally based sensation Improvised will be the sentimental favorite as she brings a six-race win streak against lesser opposition into the Turf Distaff. Five of those victories have come during the current Tampa meeting, making her the winningest horse in the country this year.

Gulfstream invaders Gal O Gal, Mrs M., and Hermans Honor are among the 12 starters in the Turf Distaff.

The six-furlong Florida Cup Sprint brings back defending champion Built Up in a field that includes Scrubs, Rock County, and Mychampion, who posted a major upset by winning the inaugural Tampa Cup Sophomore at 62-1.