The Festival Day celebration on March 12 at Tampa Bay Downs will be even grander than anticipated.
The Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf, which produced an Eclipse Award champion in 2012 winner Zagora and a top Eclipse Award contender in this year's winner, Stephanie's Kitten, has been upgraded to Grade II status by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
The purse for the mile-and-an-eighth Hillsborough will be raised to $200,000 from $150,000 to comply with TOBA graded-stakes requirements. The Festival Day card, which includes the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf, will offer $850,000 in stakes purses.
The vote to elevate the Hillsborough from its previous Grade III status was conducted Wednesday at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Company in Lexington, Ky., during the committee's annual meeting. The grades and purses for Tampa Bay Downs' five other graded stakes remain unchanged.
“A lot of factors go into upgrading a stakes, including the quality of the field and what horses go on to achieve against top competition,” said Allison De Luca, the Tampa Bay Downs Racing Secretary and a member of the committee. “The quality of horses for the Hillsborough in recent years has been fantastic, and we are fortunate a lot of top trainers have brought their best horses to run here on the turf.
“I think it's also a testament to (Vice President of Facilities and Track Surfaces) Tom McLaughlin and his crew for the job they do maintaining the turf course,” De Luca added.
Zagora, a French-bred mare who was owned by Martin S. Schwartz and trained by Chad Brown, used her record-setting Hillsborough effort in 2012 as a stepping stone to a Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf victory at Santa Anita and an Eclipse Award as Champion Grass Mare. This year's Hillsborough winner Stephanie's Kitten, a 6-year-old mare owned by Kenneth L. and Sarah K. Ramsey and trained by Brown, won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Keeneland, a triumph that could earn her an Eclipse from the voters.
Another Hillsborough Stakes winner, 2008 winner Dreaming of Anna, had won the 2006 Eclipse as Champion 2-Year-Old Filly after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Other top trainers to have saddled the Hillsborough winner since its inaugural 1999 running include Elliott Walden, James Toner, Wayne Catalano, Christophe Clement, H. Graham Motion and Todd Pletcher, who has trained the winner four times.
The Hillsborough had attained Grade III status for the 2004 edition.
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