Mark Casse admits he was having some second thoughts.
Despite the fact his charge Flameaway earned two of his three stakes wins on the dirt, the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer wasn't fully convinced life on the main track would be where the son of Scat Daddy ultimately made his best mark.
Under some prodding from owner John Oxley, Casse gave in to some Derby fever and put his chestnut colt in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs against heavy favorite Catholic Boy. After watching Flameaway show his mettle, when he outdueled the Remsen Stakes (G2) winner in the stretch, Casse is happy to say the boss—as usual—knew best.
"I would say I was kind of wishy-washy about trying him on dirt, and Mr. Oxley said, 'Can we do it one more time?'" Casse said. "He is the boss, so I said 'of course.'"
One order of business Oxley may have in the near future is writing a check for $6,000 by March 19 in order to include Flameaway among the late nominees to the Triple Crown series. The Ontario-bred colt forced his way into the classic conversation when he fought back after being headed by Catholic Boy at the eighth pole to earn a half-length victory in the Davis.
Though Flameaway came into the 1 1/16-mile Davis off a victory in the Kitten's Joy Stakes over the Gulfstream Park turf Jan. 6, his best outings were over a dirt surface. In his second start he captured the off-the-turf Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 18. Two outings later he took an off-the-turf edition of the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (G3) at Keeneland—a run that earned him a spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T), where he finished eighth.
Which surface is best for him may still have been up for debate, but one thing Casse was certain of was how much Flameaway loves a good fight. He backed that up Saturday, when he won the break to take the six-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in :24.18, as Vino Rosso, Septimius Severus, and Catholic Boy bunched up behind him.
When he ran the half-mile in :47.73, Flameaway had Septimius Severus ranging up to his hip approaching the turn. That challenger threw in the towel once Catholic Boy surged up three-wide with his bid for the lead. Catholic Boy seemed poised to back up his 3-5 favoritism when he gained a short advantage in the final furlong, only to be thwarted by Flameaway unearthering a little more on the inside to snatch 10 qualifying points toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1).
"He's a fighter. If you've ever watched him, you've seen that," Casse said. "With the track playing a little fast today, I told (jockey) Jose (Lezcano) he was going to like this track. The one thing about him is, if he gets in a battle, he's going to win the battle. As long as the track is fairly firm, I think he'll run on anything."
Sent off at 10-1 odds, Flameaway earned another accolade, as he crossed the wire with his final time of 1:42.44 representing a new stakes record.
"I would say there is a good chance (to return for the grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby March 10), but it's something I have to talk to Mr. Oxley about," Casse added.
In his first effort since he won the Dec. 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in his dirt debut, Catholic Boy likely kept himself on track for a start in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream March 31.
"I really need to watch the race again, but I thought it was a big effort giving (as much as) six pounds," said Jonathan Thomas, trainer of Catholic Boy. "I'm happy, because it was a good effort. I just need to see it again and digest the race."
Vino Rosso came up for third, well clear of Hollywood Story in fourth. Navy Armed Guard and Septimius Severus completed the order of finish.
Bred by Phoenix Rising Farms, out of the Fusaichi Pegasus mare Vulcan Rose, Flameaway has five wins from seven starts with $434,834 in earnings. He was purchased by Oxley for $400,000 out of the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select yearling sale.