The final win margin in the $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes (G3T) was far closer than what was suggested on paper. The end result, however, was the exact outcome those close to Live Oak Plantation's World Approval were banking on seeing Feb. 10.
His veteran legs may have had to work harder than expected, but the reigning champion turf male still delivered the goods in his seasonal debut. After he rated well back off the early pacesetters in third, World Approval launched his trademark bid on the far turn, then fended off stubborn 12-1 shot Forge in the lane to win the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Stakes by a half-length.
The Tampa Bay Downs turf course has served World Approval well in the past. Charlotte Weber's homebred Northern Afleet gelding was unbeaten in two prior starts over the surface, including his championship campaign-launching victory in the EG Vodka Turf Classic Stakes there in April.
With a planned trip to Meydan for the March 31 Dubai Turf sponsored by DP World (G1) on the agenda, trainer Mark Casse wanted to toe the line of having World Approval ready to run like the Eclipse Award winner he is during his 6-year-old debut, without having to tap the full reserve of his fitness this early in the season. A less than fully cranked version of the 2017 Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T) winner was still too much for eight challengers, as the 1-5 favorite scored his fourth consecutive victory and sixth win from his last seven starts.
"He has been better than he was today, but hopefully this will set a nice foundation for him this year," Casse said. "He's a funny horse. He is not going to let you by."
Under confident handling from Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, World Approval raced about four lengths behind longshots Western Reserve and Le Ken as those two traded blows up front through fractions of :23.25 and :46.66 for a half-mile. Those hopes for an improbable upset were dashed when World Approval got his momentum rolling three-wide on the turn, but Forge kept things interesting in the lane with an outside run, which prompted Velazquez to keep his mount to task as they reached the wire in 1:40.66 over a course rated firm.
"He was coming off a long layoff and sometimes they need a race," Velazquez said. "But he's still a true champion and he put everybody away down the lane. I think, when we passed a mile, it was getting a little long for him with the layoff, and (the extra sixteenth) hit him right in the head a little bit."
Fire Away grabbed show honors, with Tasit and Noble Thought completing the top five. The race was marred when Doctor Mounty fell abruptly on the far turn, which caused Cheyenne's Colonel to fall over him. Both horses got up and ran through the wire and Tampa Bay Downs later reported that jockey Manoel Cruz—who was aboard Cheyenne's Colonel—was transported to a local hospital, while Doctor Mounty's rider, Antonio Gallardo, was evaluated in the jockeys' room.
With the victory World Approval improved his overall mark to 12 wins from 25 starts with a bankroll of $3,052,363. Out of the blue hen With Approval mare Win Approval, the gray gelding is a half brother to champion Miesque's Approval, as well as multiple graded stakes winners Za Approval and Revved Up.