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2023 Suncoast Stakes Preview & FREE Picks | Champion Wonder Wheel Begins Kentucky Oaks Journey
Wonder Wheel (Candice Chavez / Eclipse Sportswire / Breeders Cup)

2023 Suncoast Stakes Preview & FREE Picks | Champion Wonder Wheel Begins Kentucky Oaks Journey

Dr. Miranda previews the 2023 Suncoast Stakes from Tampa Bay Downs, then gives her top picks & long shots from this prep race for the 2023 Kentucky Oaks (G1). The champion 2-year-old filly & Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Wonder Wheel begins her Oaks journey against a tough field that includes the 2022 Demoiselle Stakes (G2) winner Julia Shining. Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The track press release:

Wonder Wheel, the 2022 Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Filly, is set to make her 2023 debut in Saturday’s $150,000  Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

The Suncoast Stakes, a mile-and-40-yard contest for 3-year-old fillies on the main dirt track, is part of Saturday’s 11-race Festival Preview Day card, headlined by the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the dirt.

Both the Suncoast and the Sam F. Davis are part of a points system leading to Churchill Downs in Louisville the first weekend of May, with the Suncoast awarding points to the first five finishers toward qualifying for the Longines Kentucky Oaks on May 5 and the Sam F. Davis awarding points to the top five toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6.

Points for both races will be awarded on a 20-8-6-4-2 scale.

Nine fillies have been entered for the Suncoast, with 12 colts and geldings entered in the Sam F. Davis. Two other stakes will also be contested Saturday, both at a distance of 6 furlongs on the main track: the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward and the $50,000 Minaret for fillies and mares 4-and-upward.

First post time will be 12:25 p.m. The Minaret is the seventh race on the card, followed in direct order by the Pelican, the Suncoast and the Sam F. Davis.

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Mark Casse, the trainer of Wonder Wheel, sounded eager this morning to kick off Wonder Wheel’s sophomore campaign in the Suncoast. “She is ready. All systems are go,” Casse said of Wonder Wheel, whose actual birthday was celebrated Tuesday.

As he has in all five of her races, jockey Tyler Gaffalione will be aboard. Wonder Wheel won four of those 2-year-old starts, capped by victories on Oct. 7 in the Grade I Darley Alcibiades and on Nov. 4 in the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, both at Keeneland. She won the latter race with a dramatic, sustained rally from 11th place early, drawing away under Gaffalione to a 3-length victory.

Career earnings for the D. J. Stable-owned star are $1,550,725.

Casse, who has also entered Live Oak Plantation’s filly Ticker Tape Home in the Suncoast, has been excited by Wonder Wheel’s potential since she arrived at his Casse Training Center in Ocala last March. “We got her in the fall (of 2021) and broke her, and she acted like she was better than average early last year. But we really started singing her praises at Saratoga,” he said.

Wonder Wheel finished second there on Sept. 4 in the Grade I Spinaway to Leave No Trace, who was second in the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. But it was the way Wonder Wheel went about her lessons that most impressed her conditioner.

“Anything she does, she does it effortlessly,” Casse said. “She just amazes me how she trains. Most things other horses have to work hard to accomplish, she will do it easily. That is usually the first indication (of an outstanding racehorse).

“Tyler has loved her from the start,” Casse said. “Let’s see where she goes from here, but she probably is the best 2-year-old I have ever trained.”

Casse does not expect an easy time of things; not by any means. The Suncoast field includes Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher’s Julia Shining, who won the Grade II Demoiselle Stakes on Dec. 3 at Aqueduct, and trainer Arnaud Delacour’s locally based Opus Forty Two, winner here of the Gasparilla Stakes on Jan. 14.

Casse also has two entrants in the Sam F. Davis, Champions Dream and Classic Car Wash. Champions Dream, who closed fast to be second to Zydeceaux here by a neck on Jan. 14 in the Pasco Stakes, is “definitely a much better horse now than he was (then),” Casse said.

Gaffalione has the  riding assignment on Champions Dream, as well.

Here is the full field for the Suncoast Stakes in post position order, with horse, trainer and jockey listed:

  1. Wonder Wheel, Mark Casse, Tyler Gaffalione
  2. Opus Forty Two, Arnaud Delacour, Daniel Centeno
  3. Charlie’s Wish, David Fawkes, Emisael Jaramillo
  4. Champagne Calling, Ian Wilkes, Julien Leparoux
  5. Dreaming of Snow, Gerald Bennett, Samy Camacho
  6. Guns n’ Graces, Chad Brown, Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr.
  7. Fast Tracked, Arnaud Delacour, Angel Suarez
  8. Ticker Tape Home, Mark Casse, Antonio Gallardo
  9. Julia Shining, Todd Pletcher, Luis Saez.

Tampa Bay Downs trainer Aldana Spieth has entered Oldsmar-based Dreaming of Kona, the stakes-winning gray colt she owns in partnership under her Aldana Gonzalez Racing banner with sister and brother Lisa Ballou and Steve Ballou, in the Sam F. Davis. Spieth’s husband, Scott Spieth, will ride Dreaming of Kona.

There is little debate Dreaming of Kona is much improved since last seen here on Dec. 3, when he finished third in the Inaugural Stakes without threatening the top two. Dreaming of Kona returned to action on Jan. 1 at Gulfstream in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, finishing a half-length behind Legacy Isle and being elevated to the win position via disqualification because Legacy Isle drifted out late, impeding Dreaming of Kona’s momentum.

Back home, Dreaming of Kona settled in nicely before turning in a blistering 4-furlong breeze of 46 4/5 seconds on Jan. 18 with Spieth aboard, the best of 43 workouts that day at the distance. “He galloped out very strong and was under a minute (for 5 furlongs),” Aldana Spieth said.

“He’s doing very good now, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he has progressed (since the Mucho Macho Man). He was already very professional, but I think a lot of stuff clicked for him after that race. The shipping, the different environment, he handled everything well,” Spieth said.

“If he knew halfway what he is supposed to do at that point, he is probably up to 75 or 80 percent now. But he is still learning and enthusiastic about everything, and he is very focused. He loves to train and be out there and do his thing.”

Dreaming of Kona, whose career record of 2-for-3 includes his maiden victory Oct. 17 at Presque Isle Downs in his career debut, was named for Kailua-Kona, that portion of the island of Hawaii that has bedazzled travelers for centuries. Spieth said his different shades of coloring brought the rocky island paradise to mind, resulting in the colt’s nickname of “Rocky.”

The nickname has evolved to have a double meaning, Spieth said. “”We didn’t have any horses to go in company with him (during workouts), because he knocked them all out and they couldn’t work with him again. So Scott joked that he was like (fictional prize fighter) Rocky Balboa.”

One thing is for certain: There are a lot of punchers entered in the Sam F. Davis Stakes whose KO prowess has yet to be established.

Saturday, then, is a good time for backyard brawling.

Here is the full field for the Sam F. Davis Stakes in post position order, with horse, trainer and jockey listed:

  1. Worthington, Michael Maker, Pablo Morales
  2. Prairie Hawk, Saffie A. Joseph, Jr., Samy Camacho
  3. Classic Legacy, Bill Mott, Junior Alvarado
  4. Laver, George “Rusty” Arnold, II, Jose Morales
  5. Groveland, Eoin Harty, Daniel Centeno
  6. Classic Car Wash, Mark Casse, Emisael Jaramillo
  7. Dubyuhnell, Danny Gargan, Jose Ortiz
  8. Notah, John P. Terranova, II, Antonio Gallardo
  9. Champions Dream, Mark Casse, Tyler Gaffalione
  10. Dreaming of Kona, Aldana Spieth, Scott Spieth
  11. Litigate, Todd Pletcher, Luis Saez
  12. Zydeceaux, Ramon Minguet, Samuel Marin