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 1⁄16 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