Those darn butterflies were already starting to churn in trainer Mark Casse's gut around noon today.
Not that Casse would trade the feeling. He'll bring the reigning Eclipse Award Champion Turf Male, 6-year-old gray gelding World Approval, to the paddock for Saturday's 11th race, the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the grass.
“It's always kind of nerve-wracking when you're running a champion and so much is expected,” said Casse, who conditioned World Approval to three consecutive Grade I victories last year, capped by his sterling performance in the Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf at Del Mar.
“It's more a case of not wanting to let him down, as opposed to him not letting you down,” Casse said. “But we're happy with where we're at and comfortable letting him do the rest.”
The Tampa Bay Stakes is part of a loaded, 12-race Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card that includes the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes for 3-year-olds on the main track; the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf; and the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the dirt.
Post time for the first race is 12:13 p.m. The Sam F. Davis is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race and the Suncoast is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race.
Saturday marks the second time in three years Casse has brought an Eclipse Award champion to Tampa Bay Downs. In 2016, he saddled Tepin, the previous year's Champion Turf Female, for victories in both the Lambholm South Endeavour and the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, kicking off her second consecutive Eclipse-winning season.
The handsome World Approval, bred and owned by Charlotte C. Weber's Live Oak in Ocala, will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. He will break from the No. 7 post and carry 124 pounds, 7 more than his nine rivals.
Regardless of the impost, the morning-line handicapper has established World Approval at odds of 2-5.
Casse hopes to use the Tampa Bay Stakes as a prelude to a trip overseas for the $6-million Dubai Turf on March 31. “We're wanting a big race out of him that hopefully will lead us to Dubai,” Casse said. “We've had real good luck using Tampa Bay Downs as a starting point. The great turf course there got World Approval started last year” with a victory in the Florida Cup EG Vodka Turf Classic.
“We've done all we can do, and now it's up to him,” Casse added.
The conditioner arrives Saturday with a strong hand, complemented by owner John C. Oxley's Flameaway in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Sam F. Davis and Oxley's 4-year-old filly La Coronel in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Lambholm South Endeavour on the grass. The Davis is the 10th race and the Endeavour the ninth.
“Flameaway is kind of an unknown, but the one thing I do know about him is that he loves to win,” Casse said, referring to his 4-for-6 record. His three stakes victories include the Grade III Dixiana Bourbon in October at Keeneland in a race taken off the turf and run on a sloppy main track and the Kitten's Joy on Jan. 6 on the turf at Gulfstream.
Flameaway will break from the No. 2 post under jockey Jose Lezcano. He is 8-1 on the morning line in the seven-horse field. “He's a big, beautiful horse, and Mr. Oxley feels he deserves a shot before (if) we go back to the grass. But there are some pretty big dirt races to go after, if he's capable,” Casse said.
The 4-year-old La Coronel, last year's Florida Oaks runner-up at Tampa Bay Downs, was last seen in action on Oct. 14 winning the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup presented by Lane's End on the lawn at Keeneland. Lezcano will ride the Oxley-owned lass.
Casse hopes La Coronel can develop into a filly like Tepin, but he knows her seven rivals in the Lambholm South Endeavour are eager to delay that possibility. La Coronel is one of three 4-year-olds in the race, with the five others either 6 or 7 years old.
Toward her future objectives, Casse worked La Coronel together with World Approval on Jan. 27 at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach.
“This is her first time playing with the big girls,” Casse said. “It's like a college superstar getting ready to start her professional career. It's a big step up for her, but we feel confident she can handle it.”
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