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Top races at Downs may lose star steeds

The glamor factor for the premier weekend of racing at Tampa Bay Downs likely has diminished with the likelihood Sky Mesa and Lion Tamer will not run in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby and the possibility Ivanavinalot will skip the filly-equivalent Florida Oaks.

Sky Mesa, regarded as a top contender in the nebulous early weeks of the Triple Crown prep season, has not responded well enough to an ankle injury during workouts at Palm Beach Meadows and is expected to be held out by trainer John Ward.

Lion Tamer, winner of the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes on Feb. 15, will eschew Sunday's 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby for the Lane's End Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 22, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

The Oaks, also Sunday, could lose some star power, too. Trainer Kathleen O'Connell is vacillating between shipping Ivanavinalot _ coming off a second-place finish in the Grade II Davona on Feb. 23 at Gulfstream _ to Oldsmar for the Oaks and staying at Gulfstream for the Grade II Bonnie Miss Stakes on Friday. The filly has won five times in eight starts.

IN THE SWING: Mickey Goldfine apprenticed with his father, Lou, when he was racing a horse named Shecky Greene against the likes of Secretariat and Sham, but he never really experienced the anxiety of a possible Kentucky Derby run until he happened onto a colt this year named Senor Swinger.

With a major step toward such a run looming Saturday in the Grade I, 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, Goldfine, 50, is getting the idea.

"This brings it to a whole new level," he said.

Senor Swinger, an undefeated son of 2002 leading sire El Prado, raised expectations by winning his first two races, including a dead-heat finish with Ten Cents a Shine on Jan. 31 at Gulfstream. A respiratory infection had moved back that second start, throwing off a planned run in the Feb. 15 Fountain of Youth Stakes and making Saturday's Florida Derby the next logical step. Senor Swinger enters as the most lightly raced colt in a field highlighted by Bobby Frankel-trained Empire Maker and Fountain of Youth winner Trust N Luck.

"We want to win this race as badly as any other race," said Goldfine, who took over his father's Chicago racing stable in 1999. "Every time we enter a race we also want to win. But we are using this race as a steppingstone to the Illinois Derby to the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Derby being, you know, the finale. We want our horse to be at his best for the Kentucky Derby."

Interest in the colt by larger outfits already has somewhat validated his potential. Bob Baffert, who orchestrated a purchase of 2002 Derby winner War Emblem after the Illinois Derby, and Nick Zito each made overtures this winter.

Robert Ackerman and Barry Golden are unlikely to part with their prospect, Goldfine said.

Goldfine has cross-entered Senor Swinger in the Tampa Bay Derby and will consider shipping him to Oldsmar on Saturday if weather fouls the Gulfstream track.

HARD TO HANDLE: The $3,880,693 wagered on the 11-race card at Tampa Bay Downs on March 7 set a combined handle record. The previous mark of $3,877,477 was set in a 13-race card on March 18, 2001.

Tampa Bay Downs has benefited from numerous lost racing days in the Northeast due to brutal winter weather. The track averaged $2.5-million wagered per day through 60 dates, a $500,000 daily increase.

GAME ON: Tecmo plans to release a horse racing video game for PlayStation 2 on March 26. Gamers will be able to assemble a stable from more than 2,500 horses, train them and race on one of 30 tracks.

A WINNER AGAIN: Repository, a 5-year-old Florida-bred, won the $80,400 Winter Solstice Stakes at Santa Anita by a half-length to snap a five-race losing streak.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.