Back in the 1970s and '80s when he owned Tampa Bay Downs, Sam F. Davis loved to shoot the breeze with anybody and everybody who worked on the grounds, from the trainers, to the jockeys, to the grooms. On race days he eschewed the air-conditioned confines of his office, preferring to mingle with the regulars in the grandstand, exchanging tips and overheard bits of inside dope.
"You'd see him out there with his coat and tie, and his hat on, and his Racing Form and program, marking them up," said Suzy McMullen about her late father. "It was his great joy."
As an owner who felt most at home among the working class of the racing world, Davis would have no doubt appreciated this year's results in the race that carries his name. The 2009 Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) was won by a horse that was claimed for $20,000 last year, with a 75-year-old former schoolteacher for an owner who also serves as the horse's groom, and a trainer who captured his first stakes victory after 32 years in the business.
The winning horse, General Quarters, defeated three unbeaten, and much more heralded colts, and he did it handily, running away with an easy 31/2-length victory. The previously unbeaten Musket Man, who had defeated General Quarters by a length in the Jan. 17 Pasco Stakes, finished third, three lengths behind longshot Sumo, who ran second.\
"I'm just real proud of him," said exultant trainer Mark Miller, as the 10-deep team of horsemen surrounded General Quarters in the winner's circle. "He proved a lot today."
The Sam F. Davis Stakes, which achieved graded status for the first time this year to cement its place as a legitimate prep for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I; graded stakes earnings determines who starts), is considered a nice first step on the road to the Triple Crown. A number of horses that have finished in the money here in recent years have found themselves in the Kentucky Derby field.
Not many outside the General Quarters camp would have thought the son of Sky Mesa would be in this position. Owner Thomas McCarthy, 75, claimed General Quarters at Churchill Donws last May and immediately assumed the role of trainer and groom, as well. McCarthy has been in and out of the Thoroughbred industry since he was in his 20s, and, early on, decided General Quarters was to be his "last hurrah."
"I've done everything with this colt," said McCarthy. "I've walked him, I've groomed him, I've bathed him. I've done everything since the day I got him."
Late last year McCarthy decided the colt needed to head south to warmer climates, and Tampa Bay Downs was the chosen destination. McCarthy and Miller had become acquainted in the stables in Kentucky, and McCarthy decided to put the horse in Miller's care, with intentions of following the pair to Florida after a few weeks.
General Quarters thrived immediately under the Gulf Coast sun.
"He just loves it here; he loves the track," said Miller, a horse racing lifer who first got his training license at Calder in 1977. "This is hands down the best place in the country to be in the winter. The track, the surface, the people, the atmosphere, and the horses just love it. They're so happy, and that's what we've been doing, just keeping him happy."
In General Quarters' first two outings at Tampa Bay Downs, he showed improvement, finishing second Dec. 27 to Top Seed(another Sam Davis contender), before another strong second to Musket Man in the Pasco. In both races the horse was forced wide and was unable to make up ground.
Miller and McCarthy were confident heading into the $225,000 Sam F. Davis, but all the positive energy and high hopes were almost dashed just 24 hours before the race. The horse playfully jumped in the air and kicked himself, causing considerable swelling on his leg and anxiety among his training staff. McCarthy spent two hours hosing him, icing him, and rubbing him with alcohol. By evening the swelling had gone down and the crisis had subsided.
On race day General Quarters was back to his normal self, laid back, relaxed, and appearing to be unaware that anything out of the ordinary was in his future. He spent most of the afternoon lying down, and showed no signs of anxiety as the race approached.
James Lopez was in the irons for the race, as he has been since General Quarters made his way south. The race, at 1 1/16 miles, was a step up in distance, but Miller was confident it was a step the colt was ready to take. Out of the Unbridled's Song mare Ecology, he'd been bred to handle distance, Miller surmised, and he'd prove it on the track. McCarthy and Miller's plan was for him to stay inside, stalk the leaders until he reached the three-eighths pole, and then go for the lead. Lopez executed the plan perfectly.
"We had a dream run," Lopez said. "I sat in behind the leader and just stayed there until it was time to go, and he went."
Lopez had learned a valuable lesson from the previous two races, in which General Quarters came up just short.
"He had stopped on me sprinting in the last two races but I probably had him on the lead too soon. So I learned something and he learned something," he said. "He was just reaching out at the end, and, yes, I am sure he can get the next sixteenth."
Lopez raised his crop triumphantly as General Quarters cruised across the finish line in 1:43.54. Both Miller and McCarthy were jubilant in the aftermath of the victory, McCarthy near tears as he embraced trainer and jockey. The idea of a trip to Churchill Downs in May was on everybody's mind, but victory here, today, was very sweet.
"I tell you what, it was overwhelming," said McCarthy. "I knew he could do it in my heart, because we've watched him do it every morning."
McCarthy, who has had one horse nominated for the Kentucky Derby in his long career, and who currently has a stable of two horses, was emphatic in his plans for General Quarters from here on out.
"Well, it possibly will be to the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III)," he said with a look of measured determination, "then on to the Blue Grass (gr. I), and on to the Derby."
The Sam F. Davis winner was bred in Kentucky by Mr. and Mrs. R. David Randal.