OLDSMAR — Battle Hardened proved to be battle-tested.
A maiden starting in his first stakes, Battle Hardened entered the Kentucky Derby picture with a 1 1/4-length victory in the Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes in front of a crowd of 5,344 Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs.
A 3-year-old colt by 2009-10 North America-leading sire Giant's Causeway, Battle Hardened benefited from a picturesque ride from Julien Leparoux. The Kentucky-bred saved ground along the rail and swung into the middle of the fast track for the stretch run.
Despite being winless in three previous maiden-claiming races, Battle Hardened was made the third wagering choice in the 11-horse field. He paid $11 to win. Prospective was second, a nose in front of Reveron. Ecabroni finished last as the 7-2 favorite behind Holy Highway.
Trainer Eddie Kenneally cross-entered Battle Hardened in a maiden-special weight event Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and didn't decide until Friday to race in the Sam F. Davis.
"On paper, (the Sam F. Davis) looked like a real good bunch of quality horses but no stars," he said. "So we decided to come here and get some of the big money."
Battle Hardened was never far back as State of Play (finished seventh) set fractions of 23.79 and 47.81 seconds through the first half-mile. Entering the stretch, Battle Hardened had moved into second behind Reveron, and he pulled away in the final 50 yards.
The winning time for 1 1/16 miles was 1 minute, 44.58 seconds. Owned by Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier, Battle Hardened earned $120,000, surpassing his previous bankroll, $18,855.
"He broke good and put me in the right spot right away," said Leparoux, who rode him for the first time. "I was inside and got lucky I could get out. The horse has a long stride and kept going."
Kenneally liked Battle Hardened's moxie.
"When he was in a group of horses in tight, he had plenty reasons to back out of there if he wanted to," Kenneally said. "He showed a little bit of game and toughness, like you want to see going forward with those going to the bigger races down the road."
The last time Kenneally had a maiden win a graded stakes was 2010 with another Giant's Causeway offspring, Santiva, in the Grade II $165,000 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Oldsmar also kicked off the career of another Kenneally trainee, Bushfire, who won the 2006 Florida Oaks and went on to capture three Grade I races that year: the Ashland at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and the Acorn and Mother Goose at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
"Tampa has been really good to us," he said.
In other stakes, Zagora ($3.80) won the Grade III $150,000 Endeavour under jockey Javier Castellano, and Dixie Strike ($3.60) captured the $150,000 Florida Oaks with former Oldsmar riding champion Jose Lezcano.
The Downs had a season-high all-source wagering handle of $8,180,578 for its 12-race card.