Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
When a field of 2014 Kentucky Derby hopefuls line up for the signature race at beautiful Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, my eyes will be squarely transfixed on one of two colts expected for the race from the Mark Casse barn, Conquest Titan. The trip to Tampa may be an audible for him, but it looks like a good one.
What do you do when you have a closer preparing for the Kentucky Derby at a track that you really don’t think suits his style? You hit the road for the closest Kentucky Derby prep hosted by a track a little more friendly to a late runner, of course, and that is exactly what Casse is doing with Conquest Titan. The field has yet to be finalized, but the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby looks to be an excellent spot for the Conquest Stables owned sophomore. Keep in mind, though not the most prestigious Kentucky Derby prep out there, the Tampa Bay Derby has produced two Kentucky Derby winners in recent years, in Street Sense and Super Saver.
There’s a long way to go before he has a chance to add his name to the list, but Conquest Titan has all the makings of a colt ready to give it a good run for the roses. When last seen, Conquest Titan was making a strong late run in the middle of the speed favoring main track at Gulfstream Park when second to Cairo Prince in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes five weeks ago. The effort also included a poor start in which he was rudely squeezed back. That performance was not only against the lay of the land, but was flattered when Intense Holiday, whom he outfinished for the place money, came back to win smartly in the Risen Star last week in New Orleans. That flattery has not go unnoticed by his trainer.
“The fact he ran past Intense Holiday in the stretch, and that he beat General a Rod at Churchill Downs says a lot,” said Casse. “They say you are judged by the company you keep, and he’s keeping good company.”
Casse mentions another reason I am liking Conquest Titan more and more as a serious Derby contender, in that mile allowance he won to close out his juvenile season. It was in that race over the Derby strip, on November 30, that a new running style was born for the colt bred to run all day, and then some. A winner of the seven furlong Swynford Stakes last year, and a dead tired pace setter in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the son of Birdstone-Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft was 12th and last for the first half of the race before uncorking an eye-catching rally that carried him to an easy victory over the now highly regarded General a Rod.
“After the Breeders’ Cup, we took him back to Churchill because what we were doing was not working and I knew we had to come up with another plan, which was to get him to relax and come running,” Casse said. “We know him better now and Shaun [Bridgmohan] knows him better. He probably has one of the best turns of foot of any horse I’ve trained. When the rider pushes the gas pedal, he had better be tied on.”
That’s good enough for me, and it may be too much for his competition at the end of the week.
Chief among his rivals for the prized position in the Tampa Bay Derby is the only horse still with a chance to win the million dollar bonus awarded for a Sam F. Davis - Tampa Bay Derby - Kentucky Derby sweep, Vinceremos. A game winner of the first in the series, the son of Pioneerof The Nile has won two straight for trainer, Todd Pletcher, after running second in his debut. Pletcher will be looking for his second straight win in the Tampa Bay Derby, having saddled Verrazano to win last year’s running.
Other likely starters in the 8 ½ furlong affair on Saturday, include Surfing U S A, another dangerous option for Todd Pletcher, Casse’s other runner, Matador, Asserting Bear, from the Reade Baker barn, Coltimus Prime, and Hy Kodiak Warrior.