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Sam F. Davis Stakes 2024 | Tampa Bay Downs Picks [Kentucky Derby]
Change of Command (Lauren King / Coglianese Photos)

Sam F. Davis Stakes 2024 | Tampa Bay Downs Picks [Kentucky Derby]

Aaron previews the 2024 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) from Tampa Bay Downs, then gives his top picks from this Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race.

Can Change of Command win his 3rd straight race while facing graded turf stakes winner Agate Road & 10 others? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The press release:

Trainer Michael Campbell and his crew have spent much of the last eight weeks sharpening their 3-year-old colt Patriot Spirit for Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F Davis Stakes at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth at Tampa Bay Downs.

But they haven’t had to work much on his competitive spirit, which emerges every time he steps onto the track within sight of other Thoroughbreds.

The 44th running of the Sam F Davis Stakes, which is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race awarding 20 points to the winner toward qualifying for the May 4 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, has attracted a field of 12 3-year-olds. Patriot Spirit drew the No. 3 post position.

The Sam F Davis Stakes is the 10th race on an 11-race race card that begins at 12:27 p.m.

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“He’s a very aggressive animal,” Campbell said, referring to Patriot Spirit’s strong desire to defeat an opponent. “We worked him a mile (on Jan. 13) and he worked terrific, as fast as some horses run (1:38 2/5) in the afternoon, and he was by himself and galloped out like nobody’s business.

“We came back and worked him a half-mile a couple of weeks ago, and just as he was pulling up some horses re-engaged him and that sucker took off and ran another half-mile. So he had two mile workouts, essentially, within 12 days.”

Leading Oldsmar jockey Samy Camacho, who rode Patriot Spirit to victory here in the Inaugural Stakes on Dec. 2 in his final start as a 2-year-old and will be aboard Saturday, gave the Kentucky-bred son of Constitution plenty of leeway in his Jan. 25 workout so as not to dull his instincts.

“When he saw that other horse trying to pass him, he took off again, and I let him go because you’re teaching him to get relaxed and breathe and get his stride,” Camacho said. “I hope he breaks well and (if he does) he’s going to be 1-2-3 early and we’ve got a big chance.”

The field for the Sam F. Davis Stakes will be tough, as it is just about every year, but Campbell – who has also entered 4-year-old filly Lady Radler in the Minaret – believes Patriot Spirit is coming up to it just right and will have no difficulty getting the two-turn distance. That belief is based in large measure on his pedigree: He’s by two-time 1 1/8-mile Grade I winner Constitution, himself a son of the marvelous sire Tapit, and out of Mistical Plan, a Grade I winner at 6 furlongs who won the Grade II, 1 1/16-mile Fair Grounds Oaks.

“It’s the pedigree that makes the difference” in determining a horse’s distance capabilities, Campbell said. “The ‘coach’ (trainer) can enhance that, but you’re not going to make them something that they’re not. I’m convinced this horse will be better off going two turns rather than (6 furlongs).”

Patriot Spirit’s foes in the Sam F Davis Stakes will include Grade III winner West Saratoga, who finished second here on Jan. 13 in the Pasco Stakes; Pletcher’s duo of Grade II turf winner Agate Road and Tireless; the improving Change of Command, a son of Into Mischief; and Inaugural Stakes runner-up Crazy Mason.

Campbell is confident Patriot Spirit belongs.

“From the moment I got this horse (following his purchase by owner George Mellon’s Mellon Patch, Inc., for $235,000 at last year’s Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s March Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training), I knew he was something special. I respect the competition, but I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the race,” Campbell said.

The conditioner credits the proverbial village for the colt’s ongoing development. His two assistant trainers, Jesse Garcia (a former jockey who rode more than 2,000 winners from 1982-2019 and was Tampa Bay Downs’s leading jockey in 1997-1998) and Carlos Espinoza, have each exercised Patriot Spirit in the mornings. Groom Rafael Aguilar attends to the colt’s needs in and around the barn.

“They are all really good horsemen. I’m the coach, but I depend on those guys for information,” Campbell said. “Jesse comes with the most experience, and he is the most committed person you’re going to find. He’s irreplaceable, just his overall knowledge and experience.

“Every day we ask ourselves ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ ‘How’d he feel today?’ ‘Is there anything we can improve on?’ ” Campbell said. “It (the success of any racehorse) is much larger than one person. They all play a role, and it’s important to have that trust and confidence and enjoy the people you’re around. I have all of the above, so I’m very blessed.”

Patriot Spirit wore blinkers in his first three career starts, with Campbell electing to remove them for the Inaugural. They will stay off Saturday, as the trainer believes he runs more settled and focused without them.

When you get around Patriot Spirit, you can sense the adrenalin his two-legged friends feel whenever they saddle him up.

“He’s very enjoyable to be around, and he’s very smart,” Garcia said. “Whatever you put in front of him, he picks up quick. He’s had a nice journey so far and we hope it keeps going.”

As for the “home-field” advantage Saturday, with Patriot Spirit having been here since the start of the meet, Campbell figures it can’t hurt.

“He’s raced at four different tracks and handled that really well, but I can’t say enough about not having to ship. So much can go wrong. … He’s accustomed to this track and he relishes it.”