OLDSMAR — Valentine's Day is about roses and the Run for the Roses.
The Kentucky Derby picture gains some clarity today with the 29th running of the Grade III $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. For the first time, the centerpiece on the $583,300 Festival Preview Day 12-race card carries graded-stakes earnings, a prerequisite for the Derby field.
The 11/16-mile Sam F. Davis (Race 10, 4:48 p.m.) drew 11 3-year-old colts and features Derby-related pageantry with jockey Kent Desormeaux assigned to Free Country, one of three unbeaten starters. Desormeaux has three Derby wins, the latest in 2008 with Big Brown. The undercard includes the Grade III $125,000 Endeavour (Race 9, 4:17 p.m.), a 11/16-mile turf test for older fillies and mares, and $75,000 Suncoast (Race 8, 3:47 p.m.) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile, 40 yards.
The past four Sam F. Davis runs have been won by ship-ins: Fierce Wind, Any Given Saturday, Bluegrass Cat and Andromeda's Hero. Musket Man, a colt trained by Derek Ryan for owners Eric Fein and Vic Carlson, can change that. He has spent the winter at Downs and is undefeated in three starts. The son of Grade I winner Yonaguska comes off a near-record win in the $75,000 Pasco Stakes on Jan. 17, clocking 7 furlongs in 1 minute, 23.06 seconds, just shy of Sir Shackleton's 1:22.28 track record in 2006.
"He's the best horse I've had, by far," said Ryan, 41. "The first time I worked him I was like, 'Whoa, what the hell do I have here?' He just does things that other horses can't do. He's got stamina and gears. When he hits the front, he idles … he has to have something to chase."
The day after Musket Man broke his maiden at 6 furlongs in October at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Ryan told Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn he had a colt who could win the Sam F. Davis. "He won from the 1-hole (actually Post 2) at Belmont, which is very tough to do with a first-time starter," he said. "Then we entered him at Philly (Philadelphia) Park (in November). He got into a lot of trouble but still managed to get the job done (winning a 6-furlong allowance race)."
Regular rider Jose Lezcano, who recorded his 1,000th career win Friday, has liked Musket Man from the start. "When (Lezcano) breezed him the first time, he said, 'This is my Derby horse,' " Ryan said.
This will be Musket Man's first try at two turns. In his last workout Feb. 7, Musket Man ran 5 furlongs in 1:00.80. "Horses don't do that on this track," Ryan said.
Bred in Kentucky, Musket Man is the second dark-bay stakes colt Fein has brought to Downs recently. In 2008, his Big Truck ran second in the Sam F. Davis and won the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby, leading to a Kentucky Derby trip. Musket Man might also start in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 14. He was bought by Carlson for $15,000 at the Keeneland (Ky.) yearling sale in September 2007. A lifetime earner of $87,600, he is out of the stakes-placed Fortunate Prospect mare Fortuesque.
Other noteworthy starters are unbeaten Top Seed and A.P. Cardinal, whose owners include Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino and Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris Sullivan.
The Endeavour is headed by Ginger Brew, 2008 Canadian Sovereign Award 3-year-old filly champion. Stakes winners Don't Forget Gil and Rock Candy are in the Suncoast.