July 22, 2024

A Day at the Races: Fortuitous visit morphs into recurring trip to Tampa Bay Downs’ Festival Preview Day

Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) winner Well Defined "kept his power at a lively simmer" until the start of the race (c) Nicolle Neulist

by Nicolle Neulist

The Sam F. Davis Stakes accidentally found its way onto my racing calendar.

I wanted to plan a trip to Tampa to visit a friend in the winter of 2016. It sounded fun to align that visit with a Derby prep, and I didn’t want the weather to be too hot. February sounded perfect.

The grandstand at Tampa Bay Downs (c) Nicolle Neulist

The pair of three-year-old winners that day kept me thinking back to my visit, as both Destin and Weep No More would continue to succeed in stakes company. And, as good as both of them became, one of the turf races that day featured true royalty. That was the year Tepin began her season in the Endeavour (G3), the beginning of a world tour that would bring the Queen of the Turf to six victories in three different countries.

Of course, I had to come back. This winter marks my fourth trip to Tampa Bay Downs, and three of those visits have come on Festival Preview Day. It has become one of my favorite big race days of the year. It’s a day on its way up, with the Sam F. Davis reinstated as a Road to the Kentucky Derby points race in 2018 and the Suncoast added to the Road to the Kentucky Oaks that same year.

You can see three-year-olds near the beginning of the Derby and Oaks trails. You can see proven older turf horses beginning their seasons. And yet, there’s enough room on the apron to amble around from the paddock to the rail without spending most of the time between races pushing through a crowd. Even with the growing attention, it’s still the most underrated big race day in the country, and I had another memorable visit this year.

In the paddock before the Tampa Bay Stakes (G3), I felt acutely the two very different sides of how I engage with horse racing. By now, it has become second nature to keep my betting side and my fan side separate. When handicapping the races and playing my tickets, I keep my heart out of it. However, once I’ve explained my logic and built my tickets, I can let myself be a fan again.

Heart to Heart and his famous heart-shaped marking were on full display for Festival Preview Day at Tampa Bay Downs (c) Nicolle Neulist

I can enjoy moments like seeing Heart to Heart in the paddock again. His face, a perfect heart sprouted at the center of his forehead, fills me with the same giddy glee as it did in September of 2014, when I went to the races at Churchill Downs for the first time and watched him get ready for the Jefferson Cup (G3). Little did I know that almost 4 1/2 years later, I’d be in a different paddock, with a camera in my hand instead of my phone, feeling the same excitement while trying to take pictures of that same heart.

Later in the day, I saw something completely new in a horse I thought I knew. In the days leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, I saw Well Defined out on the track each morning. He was one strong, fit horse galloping amidst so many strong, fit horses about to run the race for which they had been preparing all year.

I expected him to look good on Saturday, but something was different in the paddock before the Sam F. Davis, beyond the physical development you’d hope to see between ages two and three. His energy had found precarious, perfect balance. His muscles coiled under his glistening coat; looped braids dotted his bowed neck. His caretakers leaned, bent, braced, used every muscle they had to keep him in their hold. But, unlike several others who would line up in the starting gate with him, his reserve of energy didn’t boil over in the paddock. Like a seasoned racehorse, Well Defined knew the test that lie ahead. He kept his power at a lively simmer, just under the surface, until the starting bell.

Point of Honor impressed in her stakes debut, romping to victory in the Suncoast to earn points on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks (c) Nicolle Neulist

In addition to revisiting horses who were already competing at the top of the game, the February timing of the race is perfect for getting to know horses who could be stars, while still leaving them time to prove themselves and build experience before the Classics in late spring. It’s fun to be along the rail when any promising young horse commands the attention of the racing world, but even more fun when that horse is by your favorite sire, and when you can see so much of him in their coat and their build. When Point of Honor forged clear in the lane in the Suncoast Stakes, I couldn’t smell lilies quite yet, but the daughter of Curlin came home with enough authority to spark as much optimism as I’ll allow myself in February.

Returning to Tampa Bay Downs this year reminded me of everything I love about Sam F. Davis Stakes Day: longtime favorites to appreciate and rising stars to love, all at a beautiful track with enough room for everyone to enjoy it. It may have gotten onto my racing calendar by accident, but it will remain there for years to come.