OLDSMAR — Trainer Derek Ryan has navigated the Triple Crown trail before. He is trying to do it with Holy Highway this time.
Three years after saddling his only Kentucky Derby starter, Musket Man (third to Mine That Bird), Ryan is eager to see how Holy Highway performs today in the Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis, the first major prep for 3-year-olds at Tampa Bay Downs and the centerpiece of Festival Preview Day.
A strong effort could make Holy Highway a prospect for the Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. However, Ryan enters today's 11/16-mile event (Race 11, 5:10 p.m.) with guarded optimism.
"We're trying to figure out what exactly we've got," he said. "He's a nice horse, but we don't know if he's at this kind of level. Even though he's won two on the turf, I think he's going to be a better horse on the dirt. If he doesn't pan out, then we'll put him back on the turf and get him ready for the Florida Cup (April 7)."
The 32nd annual Sam F. Davis appears to be wide open. Trainer Todd Pletcher goes for his fifth victory in the event with Ecabroni, whose only win is a maiden score at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
Trainer Graham Motion, who recently announced his 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning Animal Kingdom is likely to make his season debut in the Grade III $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on Feb. 25, entered State of Play. The colt has two turf victories, including a Grade II triumph in the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.).
Gulfstream Park Derby winner Reveron is the 3-1 morning-line favorite among the field of 11.
Holy Highway, a Florida homebred colt owned by Liam Benson of Ocala, is by 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull and out of the Awesome Again mare Freeway Fun. Ryan was at Monmouth Park when Holy Bull broke his maiden and won the Haskell Invitational at Oceanport, N.J.
"(Holy Highway) is a very similar type of horse, not ability-wise, but to look at him," Ryan said. "He's slender, very athletic and done everything the right way in every start. The good thing about (Holy Bull's) offspring is they are good on turf and dirt."
Holy Highway's two Oldsmar starts have been on turf against maiden and allowance optional claiming company. His lone dirt race came at Calder in Miami Gardens, where he finished third. Angel Serpa has the riding assignment.
Ryan is using the same blueprint with Holy Highway as he did with Schoolyard Dreams (2010) and Musket Man (2009), who finished second and third, respectively, in the Sam F. Davis. Each horse had three starts entering the race. "On paper, (Holy Highway) is going to look like he's in over his head (20-1 on the morning line)," Ryan said. "But we're going to try this."
The Grade III $150,000 Endeavour (Race 10, 4:40) and the $150,000 Florida Oaks (Race 6, 2:40) also are on the 12-race card.