Juveniles take center stage at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday as the track hosts the 31st running of the Inaugural S. and the 37th edition of the Sandpiper S., a pair of six-furlong sprints worth $100,000 each.

The races serve as preps for the track’s upcoming three-year-old series that culminates in the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby (G2), a Road to the Kentucky Derby contest that will award 50-20-10-5 points to the respective top four toward a starting berth in next May’s Run for the Roses.

First up will be the Inaugural, which drew a field of 11 colts and geldings including stakes scorer Li’l Meatball. The chestnut gelding broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park in late June before taking part in that venue’s Florida Sire Stakes divisions.

Li’l Meatball ran fourth as the 9-5 favorite in the Dr. Fager division before filling the third-place spot in both the Affirmed and In Reality divisions at 6-1. The David Braddy pupil returned with a front-running victory in the Juvenile Sprint S. at Gulfstream Park West on November 7, and retains the services of regular rider Miguel Vasquez for Saturday’s Inaugural.

There are only two other stakes winners in the Inaugural field – Formal Summation, who captured the Laurel Futurity in September, and Unbridled Trick, who just broke his maiden last out in the Juvenile S. at Thistledown.

Also entered Saturday are a couple of nice winners in Ishaq, who scored his November 28 debut by 10 lengths over the track, and Transform, unbeaten in two starts thus far including a three-quarter length allowance victory on October 12 at Mountaineer Park.

Earlier on the card, nine fillies will line up in the Sandpiper S. Only three in the group have prior stakes experience but not one of those has yet to score at the level.

Kandoo easily broke her maiden at Gulfstream Park before shipping to Saratoga for a try in the Adirondack S. (G2), but could only manage sixth after stumbling badly at the start. The Ralph Nicks trainee returned to Gulfstream to be second in a September 24 allowance/optional claimer and captured a turf contest against similar last out on October 21 at Gulfstream Park West.

Tyler Gaffalione has been aboard Kandoo for all but her Adirondack start and will be back in the saddle Saturday.

Also of interest in the Sandpiper is Old Valyria, who broke her maiden by seven lengths before running second on November 27. Both those efforts came over Woodbine’s synthetic Polytrack and the Jamie Attard-conditioned bay will try to transfer that form to the main track at Tampa Bay Downs.

Also scheduled for Saturday at the track is the $100,000 Lightning City S. sending an overflow field of 14 five furlongs on the turf. Dual stakes winners Joya Real and Richies Sweetheart, as well as stakes victress and recent Millions Turf Sprint Preview runner-up Katie’s Kiss, are among the contenders.

Li’l Meatball photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese Photography