OLDSMAR — Welcome to U.S. soil, Asserting Bear. It is time for a new challenge, a new surface and to be assertive.
The stakes-winning Canadian-bred colt can take his connections to new places, beginning with today's Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Sam F. Davis (Race 9, 4:25 p.m.), a 1�th-mile race for 3-year-olds, is the showcase on a Festival Preview Day card that includes the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes (8, 3:55) and Grade III $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes (10, 4:55).
The Downs is offering a $1 million bonus to the Davis-winning owner if the horse can capture the Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 and the Kentucky Derby on May 3. One fan who selects the Davis winner also will be eligible from a random drawing for a $100,000 prize if the horse wins all three races. The Davis Stakes was dropped this year by Churchill Downs as a Kentucky Derby points qualifier.
Those were nonfactors to Canadian-based trainer Reade Baker, 66, who hopes his Asserting Bear (post 6) will be golden in his first start of the year with jockey Joe Rocco Jr. "I want (Asserting Bear) to have a run over the track for the Tampa Bay Derby," Baker said. "We might as well find out whether the (Kentucky) Derby is a realistic thing at this point."
Harpoon drew the rail in the eight-horse field for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Asserting Bear, the first stakes champion by Grade II winner Bear's Kid out of the stakes-placed Assert mare Star Guest, has raced exclusively on Polytrack and turf at Woodbine in Toronto. He was shipped to Palm Beach Downs in Delray Beach on Dec. 16 to prepare for what could be the first Kentucky Derby start for Baker and Bear Stables owner Danny Dion of Bonnyville, Alberta. They've come close before.
The pair tried with Kentucky Bear in 2008, but he lacked sufficient graded earnings for the Kentucky Derby and eventually raced in the Preakness Stakes (finished sixth). Then Dion, whose Bear Slashing company is the world's largest mulching operation, was talked out of purchasing a Canadian-based gelding by Baker. That horse was Mine That Bird, who went on to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
"Danny wanted to buy (Mine That Bird) and I told him it wasn't a very good idea," Baker said. "I thought we had a better horse at home."
Bear's Kid was the first winner Baker saddled for Dion, so it was a natural for Baker to buy Asserting Bear at the Sept. 2012 Canadian yearling sale for $50,715. He has earned $232,157 with two wins from six starts.
"Asserting Bear was very unique because it was a proven, reasonably priced sire (Bear's Kid stands for $2,500), and (Asserting Bear) is a half-brother to a horse that won nearly $1 million (Grade II winner Inish Gloria)," Baker said. "Even excluding the pedigree, he was a marvelous looking horse."
Asserting Bear, a 2013 Sovereign Award finalist for Canada's top 2-year-old male, will add blinkers and comes off three excellent outings. He won the $250,000 Coronation Futurity on Nov. 17 and lost two stakes by 1½ combined lengths: third in the $250,000 Cup and Saucer (to Matador, a colt he faces today) and second in the $125,000 Kingarvie in his last start Dec. 7.
"His development has been very positive," Baker said. "He's a very easy horse to work with.
"Every owner in America wants to win a Kentucky Derby, so we're here. If we don't have enough (qualifying) points and the (Kentucky) Derby is too tough, we'll go for the Queen's Plate (the first jewel of Canada's Triple Crown on July 6 at Woodbine). We hope he stays on the Derby trail."