02/14/2008 1:00AM

Z Humor has big shoes to fill


For years the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs was known as little more than a prep for the track’s signature event, the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. But recently the Sam Davis has become an important step on the Kentucky Derby trail despite the fact that the 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds remains ungraded.

Bluegrass Cat and Any Given Saturday, the winner of the last two renewals of the Sam Davis, both ultimately became Grade 1 winners at 3, with Bluegrass Cat also a runner-up in two legs of the 2006 Triple Crown. On Saturday, nine 3-year-olds led by Z Humor, Smooth Air, and Wise Answer will hope to carry on that legacy when they meet in this year’s edition of the $200,000 race.

Z Humor has been idle since closing out his juvenile campaign by dead-heating with Turf War in the $1 million Delta Jackpot on Dec. 7. The $400,000 he earned in that Grade 3 race virtually assures Z Humor a spot in this year’s Kentucky Derby lineup if the race overfills and entrants are determined by graded earnings. But first, he must prove to trainer Bill Mott that he is worthy by performing well in preps like the Sam Davis.

Z Humor raced with the best of his division in his two starts prior to the Delta Jackpot. He finished third behind War Pass and Pyro in the Grade 1 Champagne and fifth behind those same two rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Z Humor has trained steadily for his return at Payson Park and has four recorded works over the past month.

Wise Answer returns to the main track after failing to threaten when making his 3-year-old debut on New Year’s Day in Calder’s Tropical Park Derby on turf. A son of Wised Up, Wise Answer was the leader of Calder’s strong 2-year-old class of 2007 by virtue of three consecutive stakes wins, including the In Reality and Foolish Pleasure around two turns in the fall.

Smooth Air, on the other hand, must prove he can handle the distance while stretching out beyond seven furlongs for the first time. Like Z Humor, Smooth Air was among the 23 individual interests in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, earning his spot by virtue of his length victory over Silver Edition in Gulfstream’s Grade 2 Hutcheson on Jan. 5.

Trainers Nick Zito and Barclay Tagg will ship a couple of key contenders up from south Florida for the Sam Davis. Zito sends in Fierce Wind off a pair of impressive two-turn victories, while Tagg counters with Big Truck, who finished fifth over a sloppy track in the Hutcheson.