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Kentucky's a long way off for Tampa Bay contender

The trainer of Strength Within wants to test his horse, starting today at Tampa Bay Downs.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003

OLDSMAR -- Plans are for making people look foolish, Tom Proctor said, so he's keeping his simple, or at least to himself.

Could Strength Within be good enough to run the May3 Kentucky Derby? Could he spring from today's Grade III Tampa Bay Derby to one of the higher-profile 3-year-old preps?

The answer is twisted somewhere around Proctor's Gilmer, Texas drawl.

"In this business, times 10," he said, "if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

So Proctor, 46, an exclusive trainer for Leonard H. Lavin's Glen Hill Farm, will let the son of Belong to Me make the plans for him after today's 11/16-mile, $250,000 test.

"The ideal thing here is to not get in his way," he said. "If he is a really good horse, he will show me, but he hasn't yet shown he's just one of those real champions. I think he's very quality, but how do you recognize those champions until you run them?"

Proctor doesn't think he saw real strength within Strength Within when he finished second to the highly regarded Lion Tamer in the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 15. A series of allergies had caused a lung infection and Proctor said that might have contributed to the defeat by six lengths.

"I thought he ran credibly in the Hutcheson, but I think he'll run a little bit better here today," Proctor said. "The distance is right and I guess I could have gone to (Saturday's) Florida Derby and been 20-1, but we decided to come here and be second choice."

Strength Within, a stalker by nature, will likely chase Aristocat and Region of Merit on track and in the estimation of handicappers.

Aristocat, a colt sired by Tale of the Cat and trained by Todd Pletcher, won at 11/16 miles in his last race, an allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 15. Region of Merit, a colt sired by Innocently Away and trained by Christophe Clement, won at a mile and 70 yards on the same day in Hallandale.

Region of Merit, though untested in stakes competition, is ranked 16th in the Thoroughbred Times top 20.

Aristocat is scheduled to be ridden by John Velazquez, Region of Merit by Eibar Coa.

A win would continue a remarkably proficient meet for Proctor. Through March11, he had won with 42 percent of his starters.

The Tampa Bay Derby will be shown live on ESPN2 as part of a package with the Grade II San Felipe Stakes from Santa Anita and Grade III Gotham from Aqueduct. Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. The most distinguished 3-year-old in Tampa Bay Downs' signature day of racing would have been Ivanavinalot, a filly trainer Kathleen O'Connell had entered in the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks. But owner Gilbert Campbell decided Thursday night to contest the Grade II, $200,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream.

The Oaks field appeared ill-equipped to stop the West Acre filly from winning her first stakes for 3-year-olds. Ivanavinalot beat My Boston Gal by 13/4 lengths for her fourth stakes victory (first at 3) in the Bonnie Miss.

"I don't think any race is ever a complete walkover," O'Connell said of the Oaks field. "A horse has to overcome certain obstacles. No track gives away one or two hundred thousand dollars for nothing."

Ebony Breeze, out of George Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable and trained by Bill Mott, appears most likely to take the winner's check today, entering with three straight wins and two stakes victories at the track. Mark Guidry is scheduled to ride Ebony Breeze and Strength Within.


GRADE III, 11/16 miles, $250,000

POST TIME: 5:18 today (11th race)

HORSES: 3-year-old colts and geldings

POST POSITIONS: 1. Fast Eddie D, 2. Cajun Beat, 3. White Buck, 4. Strength Within, 5. Popular Groom, 6. Aristocat, 7. Hear No Evil, 8. Freedom Lane, 9. Region of Merit

LOWDOWN: Lingering injury to once-hot Kentucky Derby prospect Sky Mesa and a decision to race elsewhere by the connections of Hutcheson Stakes winner Lion Tamer dilute a field that is much like this year's collection of Triple Crown hopefuls: unproven. There is talent, however, in Aristocat, a two-time winner in three starts; Region of Merit, a three-time winner in four (including one over Aristocat) and Strength Within, which finished second in the Grade II Hutcheson.


GRADE III, 11/16 miles, $150,000

POST TIME: 5:45 today (12th race)

HORSES: 3-year-old fillies

POST POSITIONS: 1. Dakota Light, 2. Ebony Breeze, 3. Crimson and Roses, 4. Groomeroma, 5. Judging Lady, 6. Never Fail

LOWDOWN: The quality of the race was drastically reduced when Ivanavinalot, a six-time winner in nine starts, was scratched to run in (and win) the Grade II, $200,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes on Friday at Gulfstream Park. That's bad news for the Oaks, but good news for the rest of the field, much of which is undistinguished and lightly raced. Ebony Breeze, a two-time winner at Tampa Bay Downs owned by George Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable, moves to the head in class.

GATES OPEN: 10:15 a.m.

FIRST POST: 12:07 p.m.

-- Compiled by Brant James.

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