After teaming up to win last year's Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion are back on the trail with another potential contender in State of Play, an accomplished performer on turf. But unlike Animal Kingdom, who did not race on dirt until the Derby itself, State of Play will get an early test on America's traditional surface in Saturday's Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The 1 1/16-mile event has also lured Prospective, winner of the recent Pasco Stakes here; Gulfstream Park Derby victor Reveron; and maiden winner Ecabroni from the Todd Pletcher barn.
State of Play won his first two career starts at Saratoga, that hot-spot for well-regarded juveniles. A stalk-and-pounce winner of a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint, the dark bay stretched out to 1 1/16 grassy miles and went wire to wire in the Grade 2 With Anticipation. State of Play was scheduled to race next in the Grade 3 Bourbon, but he was forced to miss the Keeneland feature because of a fever.
Entering the November 5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf without the benefit of his intended prep, State of Play drew a tough post 13, was bumped at the start, and faded to 12th in an uncharacteristic effort. Plans then called for him to contest the December 18 Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream, only to have him come down with another fever and regroup.
State of Play has drawn the rail Saturday with new rider Alan Garcia. Connections chose to familiarize the colt with the Tampa dirt well in advance of the Davis, and he has posted a series of works over the track, most recently breezing a half-mile in a sharp :48 3/5 last Saturday. Another positive indicator for adapting to dirt is his sire War Front, who was responsible for a couple of leading players on the 2011 Derby trail -- Soldat, also a turf-to-dirt proposition, and The Factor.
Prospective is a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canada's champion two-year-old male, chiefly through his victory in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes over Woodbine's Polytrack. The Mark Casse pupil was training forwardly for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but he disappointed in 13th.
The well-bred son of Malibu Moon put that dismal effort well behind him in the January 14 Pasco. Shortening up to seven furlongs in his reappearance, Prospective lagged off the pace early, but rolled home late to prevail, and proved himself on the dirt. The John C. Oxley colorbearer figures to be even better over a longer distance, if he can avoid getting hung out too wide. Regular rider Luis Contreras will be back aboard as he breaks from the far outside post 11.
Also exiting the Pasco are Burning Time (fourth) and Moroccan Brew (sixth). Burning Time, who represents the successful owner/trainer tandem of Harold Queen and David Fawkes, could improve back up in trip. The homebred posted his biggest win in the two-turn Foolish Pleasure at Calder last September.
Reveron brings a three-race winning streak into his toughest challenge so far. One of just a handful of horses trained at Calder by Venezuelan-born Agustin Bezara, he posted an 8-1 upset in the January 1 Gulfstream Park Derby last out. Reveron turned back a sustained bid from Nick Zito's Casual Trick, who didn't boost the form when finishing up the track behind El Padrino this past Sunday.
Nevertheless, Reveron has shown tactical adaptability and grit, and has yet to lose with Fernando Jara in the saddle. The Songandaprayer colt has drawn post 10, one spot inside of the late-running Prospective.
Pletcher has won the last two runnings of the Davis, and four of the past six. The five-time Eclipse Award-winning horseman relies on Ecabroni to keep up his strike rate. The son of Smoke Glacken punched his ticket here with a front-running maiden score going seven furlongs at Gulfstream. Ecabroni has been working well in preparation for his class, and two-turn, test. Javier Castellano will guide the pace factor from post 4.
Although Ecabroni has promise, he doesn't have the profile of Pletcher's recent Davis winners. Bluegrass Cat (2006) was already a Grade 2 winner, Any Given Saturday (2007) was Grade 2-placed, Rule (2010) was a Grade 3 winner and Brethren (2011) had cleared his entry-level allowance condition.
The Davis could also give an indirect read on Pletcher's undefeated Discreet Dancer. Neck 'N Neck, best of the rest behind Discreet Dancer in a recent Gulfstream allowance, tries his hand at stakes company here. Trained by Ian Wilkes, whose leading Derby hopeful Motor City just returned to the worktab Tuesday, Neck 'N Neck returns to two turns for the first time since his maiden win at Churchill.
Trainer Eddie Kenneally has entered the thrice-raced maiden Battled Hardened. Owned by Coolmore partners Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier, the son of Giant's Causeway has finished second to Indian Ambush in a Churchill Downs maiden and just missed to Big Screen at Gulfstream. Big Screen was another to flop behind El Padrino in his follow-up, but Battle Hardened is on the upgrade and gets Julien Leparoux.
Fellow Irishman Derek Ryan has used the Tampa series with such past classic hopefuls as Musket Man and Schoolyard Dreams, and the Tipperary native will take a stab this time with Holy Highway. Well beaten in a $25,000 maiden claimer in his only dirt try, the Holy Bull colt is two-for-two since joining Ryan. Both of those wins have come over the Tampa turf, but his pedigree suggests that the main track should be no problem. Holy Highway must also raise his game versus significantly better competition, though.
Fox Rules has been no threat in his prior stakes tries, including a seventh to State of Play in the With Anticipation, and Ravelo's Boy exits a distant fifth to Reveron in the Gulfstream Park Derby.