While jockey Angel Serpa’s first ever appearance at Calder Casino & Race Course in April was far from memorable as the young rider walked away winless in two tries, his autumnal return proved far more prosperous as the Puerto Rican native captured both of the lucrative Florida Stallion Stakes offered as part of the 21st annual Festival of the Sun, taking the $300,000-estimated My Dear Girl Division aboard Frank C. Calabrese’s Verso a Verso before returning later in the day to win the $300,000-estimated In Reality Division with Ralph Nabavi’s Speak Logistics.
“I’m really so happy right now, I almost don’t know what to say it feels so good,” Serpa said following his front-running win in the day’s finale aboard Speak Logistics. “Every horse I rode today just felt so comfortable out there, and I felt so good aboard them. Everything just clicked.”
Trained by Luis Ramirez and claimed out of her career debut for $16,000 on the recommendation of stable agent Steve Leving, Verso a Verso was never hurried through the early stages of Saturday’s Stallion Stakes final, settling in fourth while Jewel in the Sky ran on an uncontested lead through opening splits of :23.86 and :49.08.
“The trainer told me to just let her break and sit behind the pace,” Serpa said of his race strategy. “And if I did that, he said she would give me everything turning for home. And that’s exactly what happened; she really responded.”
Verso a Verso inhaled the tiring leaders at the top of the stretch, opening up a three-length lead midway down the lane that would extend to five lengths at the wire, stopping the timer for the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:49.95.
“I’m a bit surprised because she’s a second-time starter and these other horses had run a few times and some had had run good races,” Serpa added. “But my filly is good. She is still a little green, but I think she’s only going to get better and better.”
“That was a good surprise today,” winning trainer Ramirez said. “When we entered her in the race, we really felt we were just taking a shot. She still has some learning to do, but I couldn’t be happier with the way she ran, and now we have plenty of options to look at ahead of us.”
Following her Stallions Stakes triumph, Verso a Verso is now unbeaten in two starts with earnings of $185,860.
Two races after displaying his deftness in coming from off the pace to win the My Dear Girl, Serpa laid waste to his rivals while on the lead, holding an advantage at every call when a 2 ¾-length winner of the In Reality aboard the Eddie Plesa-trained Monmouth Park raider Speak Logistics.
“I knew from the last time, when I won with him in (New) Jersey, that he could take the lead so easy and set the pace like he did today,” Serpa said “And nobody tried to stay close to me. When he gets in front like that, he’s like another horse.”
In the In Reality, Speak Logistics charged to the front the moment the gate latch was sprung, putting his mark on the race while galloping effortlessly on the lead through leisurely fractions of :25.16, :50.82, and 1:15.62.
“Once I was on the lead so easy, I knew I had the race won,” Serpa said.
First-leg Stallion Stakes winner Two T’s At Two B threw a minor challenge at Speak Logistics in mid-stretch, but that threat proved little more than a mere nuisance as the son of High Cotton galloped away from that rival and was a clear winner at the wire, running the 1 1/16-mile trip in 1:47.79.
“When I started to ask him at the quarter-pole, he went like he was breaking from the gate; like nothing,” Serpa added. “I asked him a little when we turned for home, but only because he’s a young horse and it’s good to try and teach them new things.”
With his In Reality victory, Speak Logistics is now a two-time winner from three starts, with earnings of $202,700.
As impressive a human effort it was for Serpa to win both Stallion Stakes on Saturday, the prize for top equine performance of the afternoon may belong to Brue Hollander and Cary Shapoff’s Csaba, a 14-length winner of the off-the-turf $75,000 Tropical Park Derby for trainer Phil Gleaves and jockey Luis Saez.
“That horse is good; so good,” an impressed Saez said following the race. “And wow does he love this track.”
Csaba was never far off the early pace set by Musical Flair in the Tropical Park Derby, tracking that leader from third through opening splits of :24.99 and :50.05. As the sophomores moved through the final turn, Csaba advanced on the leader, taking control of the race at the head of the stretch before sprinting away from the field with ease, stopping the timer in 1:52.94 for the nine-furlong trip.
“I always had a lot of horse, and when I asked him in the stretch – wow – he had everything,” Saez said. “It’s such a good feeling when you’re in the stretch with a horse like that. You don’t need the whip or anything. You just look around and go ‘wow.’”
Csaba is now a five-time winner from 14 career starts, with all five of those victories coming over the main track at Calder. The son of Kitten’s Joy boasts a career bankroll of $211,935.
When trainer Phil Gleaves opted to run Csaba in the Tropical Park Derby instead of the Grade 3 Spend A Buck Handicap, in which the 3-year-old been cross-entered, there was no greater beneficiary than Saez, who was able to win both races, taking the Spend A Buck with Larry Fugate’s Cash Rules.
Trained by Dave Fawkes, Cash Rules sat contently in third while Decisive Moment and Two Is to Many staged a rather wicked pace duel in the Spend A Buck, trading barbs through the opening stages of the 1 1/16-mile heat, posting quick splits of :23.42 and :46.87.
“I knew those two horses had speed and were going to the front,” Saez said. “So my plan this time was to wait for the stretch, and everything was perfect.”
As the early leaders began to feel the ill effects of their battle, Cash Rules was throttled to the front, opening a clear lead in mid-stretch that was tested late by Ducduc but remained clear through the wire as the now four-time stakes winner proved three-quarters of a length the best, running the trip in 1:46.99.
“When that other horse came to him, he wasn’t tired, but when he gets by himself, he sort of waits,” Saez explained. “But once he felt that other horse coming, he went on again.”
The stakes portion of the Festival of the Sun program began with Jacks or Better Farm, Inc.’s Awesome Belle, the Stanley Gold-trained winner of last year’s My Dear Girl Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, becoming the first Festival of the Sun repeat winner since Soldier’s Dancer in 2008 when taking the $75,000 Frances A. Genter Stakes.
A front-running stakes winner in each of her last three outings, two of which came on the grass, Awesome Belle was not the swiftest from the gate in the off-the-turf Frances A. Genter as Sinister Brew took the field through an opening quarter in :24.46.
“No, I wasn’t surprised,” winning rider Fernando Jara said of Sinister Brew’s strategy of denying his filly the early lead. “I thought someone might go, so the first quarter, my filly just relaxed a little bit and we started picking them up at the five-eighths.”
Awesome Belle gained control of the race down the backstretch and entered the lane with a clear lead that was tested late by Frolic’s Revenge, but the daughter of Awesome of Course was tenacious through the wire, hanging on to win by a neck while running the one-mile distance in 1:40.82.
“I was a little worried today because it was dirt and I didn’t want to use her too much,” Jara said. “But Stanley (Gold) does an amazing job with his horses. They’re ready, and when you ask them, they give something to you, and luckily, at the end, I had just enough left to hang on.”
With her win in the Frances A. Genter, Awesome Belle is now a six-time winner from 19 starts with $443,387 in earnings. After dropping nine straight decisions following her 2011 My Dear Girl win, the filly has now prevailed in four straight races.