ST. PETERSBURG — John Graham the optimist is ecstatic about having three Wayne Ward Kennel greyhounds — Its Quillan, Kiowa Muting and Ww's Deathvalley — in tonight's golden anniversary of the $100,000 Distance Classic at Derby Lane.
John Graham the realist knows how difficult it will be to defeat 2008 All-American Flying Mancini of McAllister Kennels and Tmc's Remedy, a quality 660-yard performer, of Filipelli & O'Donnell. The finale in Derby Lane's richest event is at 10:07 p.m.
Graham, the kennel manager-trainer, likened the race to Monday's NCAA men's basketball tournament title game: "North Carolina needed to play a bad game to lose, and Michigan State needed to play its best game. It didn't happen (for Michigan State; North Carolina won 89-72). We're going to try to do what the Michigan State coach (Tom Izzo) was trying to do."
It has been 15 years since Wayne Ward won its only Distance Classic to date, with Shyland Saint. Graham was part of the trophy ceremony that night, when former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Terry Crisp presented the hardware.
Can lightning strike again?
"Not to wish any bad luck on anybody that's racing," Graham said. "But the best chance we have is if our dogs run their best race and Mancini doesn't run her best race."
Flying Mancini, seeking her sixth stakes win in 12 career finals, won all four qualifying rounds by 28 total lengths. The post-position draw was favorable for Wayne Ward, with Kiowa Muting at No. 1, Ww's Deathvalley at No. 2 and Its Quillan at No. 5. Flying Mancini and Tmc's Remedy drew Nos. 7 and 8, respectively. Other entries are Backwood Nan (Campbell Kennel), Hi Noon Hypnotic (Nova) and Kt Poker Face (Abernathy).
Graham said Kiowa Muting has perhaps the most early speed in the race; Its Quillan is more confident after reaching the $30,000 Naples-Fort Myers Classic finale (finishing seventh) March 21 at Bonita Springs; and Ww's Deathvalley is returning to form after missing two months with an ankle injury.
"We're looking forward to getting another crack at winning," Graham said. "It's certainly the most valuable prize in Florida ($32,000 for first)."
HORSES: Cliffy's Future, General Quarters and Join in the Dance, graduates of Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, are in today's Grade I $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes (Race 9, 5:15 p.m.) at Keeneland. It is a prep for the Kentucky Derby on May 2. Also today is the Grade II $1 million Arkansas Derby (Race 11, 6:41 p.m.) at Oaklawn Park.
EASTER SCHEDULE: Derby Lane and Tampa Greyhound Track will be open Sunday for simulcast wagering and poker. Tampa Bay Downs will be closed.