OLDSMAR — Barn 12. Stall 2.
It is Sunday morning on the Tampa Bay Downs backside. General Quarters eats alfalfa and owner/trainer Thomas McCarthy rakes fresh wood shavings around the star of his one-horse stable.
With the bedding to his liking, McCarthy says, "Done!"
The 75-year-old Army veteran and the 3-year-old colt with the Navy moniker are on a mighty mission today in the Grade III $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby (Race 11, 5:26 p.m.) at TBD. McCarthy calls it the paramount moment of his 50-year racing career. For Sam F. Davis Stakes winner General Quarters, capturing the track's richest race on Festival Day would virtually lock up a berth in the Kentucky Derby on May 2.
"It would be a dream come true," said McCarthy, a Louisville resident who has attended every Kentucky Derby since 1959, none as a participant.
The past five Tampa Bay Derby winners have raced in the Run for the Roses. General Quarters can likely keep that streak alive with a win that would raise his graded bankroll to $301,645, a key factor for Churchill Downs starters if more than 20 are entered. The next race for the Kentucky-bred horse is expected to be the Blue Grass Stakes on April 11 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
"I know I probably won't ever have anything like him again," McCarthy said. "So this is quite a fulfilling time for me."
General Quarters, a gray/roan colt by Sky Mesa and out of the Unbridled's Song mare Ecology, faces 10 foes. They include Hello Broadway, whose trainer Barclay Tagg saddled 2008 Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, and Sam F. Davis rivals Musket Man, Sumo and Top Seed. He can become the sixth horse to win the Tampa Bay Derby and Sam F. Davis, the last being Clearwater resident Harold Queen's Burning Roma in 2001.
General Quarters won the Sam F. Davis in stakes-record time under James Lopez, covering 11/16 miles in 1 minute, 43.54 seconds. It was his first race at two turns and first without blinkers. In a March 7 workout for the 11/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, he ran 5 furlongs in 1:01.
McCarthy, a retired Louisville educator, has rejected seven offers as high as seven figures for the colt, runnerup in the Inaugural and Pasco stakes with Mark Miller listed as the trainer. General Quarters was claimed for $20,000 in his first start (a win in May 2008) after McCarthy said he passed on an opportunity to purchase him earlier at a sale because "his right front was out just a little bit."
Area horseman Glenn Wismer, who persuaded McCarthy to race at TBD, said: "He comes from a racing family and has worked hard all his life. This is the best thing that's ever happened to him."