Won in recent years by champions Tepin and Zagora as well as Breeders’ Cup winner Stephanie’s Kitten, the $225,000 Hillsborough (G2) has evolved into one of Tampa Bay Downs’ best races. Saturday’s edition of the nine-furlong grass test is no exception, with three Grade 1-winning fillies and mares among the field of 10.
Off Limits, who won five of six last season including the Matriarch (G1) in her 2017 finale, looms a threat to start this year on the right foot for Chad Brown. The Matriarch, at Del Mar in November, was the mare’s third straight graded victory coming on the heels of Noble Damsel (G3) and Athenia (G3). Having saddled the aforementioned Zagora and Stephanie’s Kitten to victory in this spot, Brown is in a prime position to win a third with this Eclipse Award finalist.
The other top-level scorers in the field were among the leading three-year-old grass performers last season. Though upset in the Florida Oaks (G3) here to start her campaign, La Coronel moved on to capture the Edgewood (G3) and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) in her season finale. She seeks to rebound from a runner-up placing to the sublime Dona Bruja in the Endeavour (G3).
Daddys Lil Darling was only sixth in the Florida Oaks when last venturing to Tampa, but was hitting hard by season’s end. On December 30, she rewarded trainer Ken McPeek’s persistence with a half-length triumph in the American Oaks (G1) at Santa Anita.
Another talented filly in the sophomore class last year was Proctor’s Ledge, who captured the Lake George (G3) and Lake Placid (G2) at Saratoga. However, the Ghostzapper filly was beaten by La Coronel in three of their four meetings. Lovely Bernadette won three straight to end 2017, including the Valley View (G3) and Mrs. Revere (G2), the latter over Daddys Lil Darling on yielding ground.
Fourstar Crook, trained by Brown, has spent much of her career in New York-bred company, but ventured out of restricted company to take the Dr. James Penny Memorial (G3) last July and ran third in the E.P. Taylor (G1) at Woodbine most recently in October.
Brown has a formidable pair in the 2018 edition of the $200,000 Florida Oaks on the same card. French import Altea placed at Group 3 level in Deauville in her final start at two, while Salsa Bella comes off a close second in the Sweetest Chant (G3) to next-out Herecomesbride (G3) heroine Thewayiam.
Also among the field of 12 to go 1 1/16 miles on the turf are Andina Del Sur, third in the Sweetest Chant, and Almond Roca, back-to-back stakes winner on the Tampa main track this winter.
Despite a poor showing in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), Brooklyn (G2) winner War Story looks the horse to beat in the $100,000 Challenger for older horses at 1 1/16 miles. His main rivals include Rafting, You’re To Blame, and Jay’s Way.
Gidu, a son of European legend Frankel, will be a strong favorite to prevail in the $75,000 Columbia, a one-mile grass test for three-year-olds. The Todd Pletcher charge was caught late in the Dania Beach (G3) at Gulfstream last time.