Tampa Bay Downs, one of Thoroughbred racing's bigger success stories over the last several years, kicks off its road to the Kentucky Derby with the Grade 3, $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes.

The rise in prominence of the Tampa Bay Downs' 3-year-old series has coincided with that of the track in general. Since online wagering has become more prevalent, bettors from across the country have flocked to Tampa Bay Downs thanks mainly to the competitive nature of the racing that includes full fields and the potential for bigger payouts.

The Sam F. Davis Stakes dates back to 1991, but the race gained national importance when it was assigned a Grade 3 rating in 2009. Given the Kentucky Derby field is based on a horse's earnings in Graded Stakes races, the Sam F. Davis Stakes, with a purse of $225,000 in 2012, has become a prime target for many horsemen, especially with horses that may be a little more late developing.

The 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis Stakes is also used as a prep for the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the last two runnings of the Sam F. Davis Stakes and four of the last six. The most notable of those wins came in 2006 with Bluegrass Cat, who would go on to run second in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year.

Pletcher could have at least one runner in the 2012 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Ecabroni, a Maiden winner at Gulfstream Park in his second career start Jan. 14, is being pointed to the race according to online reports.

Tampa Bay Downs opened in 1926 in Tampa, Fla. Throughout most of its history it was considered a regional track with smaller purses than were offered at Gulfstream and Hialeah Parks in South Florida. However, it did gain a bit of notoriety in the middle of the last century as a destination for sportswriters and other visitors in town for baseball's spring training.

Once out-of-state wagering came on the scene, however, Tampa Bay was found to be a hidden gem. During the 2010-2011 season, Tampa Bay Downs smashed all of its previous attendance and handle records, which bucked the trend nationally.

The 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Downs live meeting runs through May 6.

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