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Stanford captures Challenger Stakes in track-record time

OLDSMAR, Fla. -- Stanford was only supposed to be getting a tightener for a return to the rich Charles Town Classic when he ran as a heavy favorite Saturday in the $100,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs -- but all the talented 5-year-old horse did was set a track record for the 1 1/16-mile distance.

Never seriously threatened when leading all the way under John Velazquez, Stanford prevailed by 3 1/4 lengths over Ami's Flatter when finishing in 1:41.75 over a fast track. That clocking lowers the mark set four weeks earlier, when McCraken won the Sam F. Davis Stakes in 1:42.45.

Stanford was wearing blinkers for the first time after trainer Todd Pletcher said the horse lost focus in a narrow defeat in his prior start six weeks ago.

"I was comfortable with the way he was doing it," said Velazquez. "In the lane, I wanted to see how he did in his first time with blinkers. He tends to wait a little bit on horses, so I wanted to see how he did, and he responded really well. Today, with blinkers, he was more focused on what he needs to do."

Stanford, owned by the partnership of Stonestreet Stables and the Coolmore group, returned $3 in a field of seven older horses. Ami's Flatter, his race-long pursuer, had another 1 1/4 lengths on late-running Hereditary.

Stanford won the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic last spring and now will be aimed for a return to the annual West Virginia showcase on April 22.

Sonic Boom scores in Columbia Stakes

One race earlier, Sonic Boom ($8) emerged best in a four-horse photo in winning his first stakes, the $75,000 Columbia Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf.

"He's the kind of horse that's going to get better," said winning jockey Julien Leparoux. "He needs to relax a little more; he grabbed the bit on me down the backside. But it was good, because he still finished."

Sonic Boom, a More Than Ready colt owned by the Lothenbach Stables, is trained by Ian Wilkes. The winning time was 1:34.73 over a firm turf, with the top four finishers separated by a mere half-length.