2023 Sam F. Davis Stakes Recap

Todd Pletcher unearthed a good backup to leading Derby fancy Forte when Litigate scored a stylish victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 11.

Litigate started the race as the second favorite after his first two starts produced a decisive Aqueduct maiden victory and a second-place finish in an allowance at Gulfstream Park to Cyclone Mischief, who admittedly didn’t help the form with a disappointing seventh in the Holy Bull (G3) Feb. 4.

But either the Sam F. Davis field was weak or, more likely, Cyclone Mischief was well below form in the Holy Bull, because Litigate stood up strongly at Tampa Bay Downs.

Luis Saez had the son of Blame midfield, not far from pacesetter Zydeceaux, before making a move around the final turn. He was challenging at the top of the stretch and had too many guns at the finish, scoring by 1 14 lengths and earning 20 points on the Road to the 2023 Kentucky Derby table.

Groveland, a 21-1 outsider who’d won just once in four previous starts, took advantage of a rails run in the stretch and fought to the line to take second, scoring 8 points on the Derby Road table. A further 1 12 lengths back was Classic Car Wash, who rallied from the rear to take third and earn 6 points.

Classic Legacy, from the Bill Mott stable, also rallied well from the rear and was fourth, just a head behind Classic Car Wash, and earned 4 points. The pacesetting Zydeceaux held on for fifth and earned 2 points.

The disappointment of the race was Remsen (G2) winner Dubyuhnell, who never recovered from a bad check at the start of the first turn and finished eighth of the 11 runners.

By Alastair Bull

Sam F. Davis Stakes History

Inaugurated in 1981, the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs needed more than twenty years to earn its place as a meaningful Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race. But since achieving a six-figure purse in 2004, the Sam F. Davis has steadily risen in prominence while producing a string of high-profile runners.

Contested over 1 116 miles and serving as a local prep for the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), the Sam F. Davis produced just three Derby starters during its first two decades of existence, not surprising since the purse hovered around $25,000 during the 1990s. But steady purse increases during the mid-2000s attracted higher-quality participants. 2005 winner Andromeda’s Hero went on to finish second in the Belmont Stakes (G1), 2006 winner Bluegrass Cat nabbed a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby, and 2007 champion Any Given Saturday claimed the Haskell Invitational (G1).

This string of quality winners prompted the Sam F. Davis to receive Grade 3 status in 2009, further raising its national profile. Future Blue Grass (G1) and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1) winner General Quarters was the first to win the newly-upgraded race, and during the 2010s, ten horses used the Sam F. Davis as a springboard to the Kentucky Derby. Among the best were Tapwrit (runner-up in 2017) and Destin (victorious in 2016), who went on to finish first and second in the Belmont Stakes, respectively.

The purse of the Sam F. Davis climbed to $250,000 in 2012, and in 2017 the race was added to the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule, offering 10 qualification points to the winner.

By J. Keeler Johnson