This year’s G2 Tampa Bay Derby has turned into a Florida Filly Dark Horse Derby pick fest! Five of the nine entrants hail from my Dark Horse selections, but they will all be trying to make a statement. A total of 85 points are on the line. For Java’s War, Dynamic Sky, and Falling Sky, earning any of the points available will help them vault up the rankings. For the rest of the field, running in the top 4 would earn them their very first points towards standing in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. With so much intrigue and so much talent in Saturday’s race, I am actually looking forward to this Derby for the first time in several years. From the rail out, here is the field for this year’s Tampa Bay Derby:
1. Eton Blue—(Giant’s Causeway—Bird Town, by Cape Town) Nick Zito sends out Marylou Whitney owned Eton Blue. The connections alone should give you reason to pause since Ms. Whitney also bred and owned Eton Blue’s Grade 1 winning dam Bird Town as well as 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone. He finished a well beaten second last out to Verrazano, but he has never finished off the board in three career starts.
2. Purple Egg—(Lion Heart—Luminous Prize, by Prized) Undefeated Purple Egg puts his record on the line for trainer Jane Cibelli. Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, The Egg has not raced since December 1. In spite of the extended, unplanned layoff, the gelded son of Lion Heart has been training sharply. His most recent work was a bullet 5 furlongs in a minute flat. He has the advantage of already having a race over this track in which he took to the quirky surface just fine, but he will be stretching out for the first time.
3. Honorable Dillon—(Tapit—Shy Greeting (ARG), by Shy Tom) Eddie Kenneally, who also trains Bradester, opted to stretch out the G2 Hutcheson winner in the Tampa Bay Derby rather than run him back in the G3 Swale last week. He was made the 122 lb co-high weight with Java's War and Falling Sky on the basis of that stakes victory. In his four career starts, he has closed, stalked, and shown speed, but both wins came when he was forwardly placed.
4. Java’s War—(War Pass—Java (GB), by Rainbow Quest) Like Purple Egg, McPeek trained Java’s War enters Saturday’s race off a significant layoff. His first three career starts were on the turf, and his only start on dirt resulted in him finishing a well beaten 6th at Churchill Downs in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. To be honest, I do not really know what to do with this one. In the KY Jockey Club, he broke slowly and was caught 6 wide. With that being his only dirt race, it is difficult to say for sure whether I should draw a line through the race or whether his poor performance was due to a dislike for the surface. His dam Java (GB) was a turf runner who was a winner at 10 furlongs at the allowance level, and so far it seems that he tends toward his dam’s preferred surface rather than his sire’s. [2 points]
5. Dynamic Sky—(Sky Mesa—Murani, by Distorted Humor) Dynamic Sky was closing in on Falling Sky with every stride in the G3 Sam F. Davis. For all intents and purposes, it looked as though he might have beaten that rival had the race been longer. In the Sam F. Davis, he was further off the pace than he had previously been in any of his starts, so perhaps being a bit closer to the pace in the Tampa Bay Derby will flip flop the results of the Davis. Like Purple Egg, he has already shown that he likes Tampa Bay’s surface. [8 points]
6. Verrazano—(More Than Ready—Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway) The first of two undefeated Pletcher trainees in this race, Verrazano had the horse racing world buzzing when he strung together back-to-back scintillating performances at Gulfstream Park. He won those two races by a combined 24 lengths. I doubt that he will go out and set the pace, but he will be right there pressing the pacesetter.
7. Offlee Fast—(Offlee Wild—Etch, by Pioneering) Like Java’s War, I am a little unsure as to what to do with this one. His first two races were over the turf, but he also did really well in his dirt debut, finishing second by only a head. I like that he already has a win at 9 furlongs, and I expect that he will go out for the lead.
8. Park City—(Harlan’s Holiday—Light Show, by Pleasant Colony) Just when you think you have seen everything Pletcher’s barn has to offer, he pulls another rabbit out of his hat. He has the same connections as champion Shanghai Bobby, so if he does well here, maybe Starlight Racing will have two shots at bringing home the roses. Like Verrazano and Purple Egg, he boasts an unblemished record and will be stretching out for the first time.
9. Falling Sky—(Lion Heart—Sea Dragoness, by Sea Hero) Speedy Sam F. Davis hero Falling Sky had the misfortune of being drawn to the outside again. His post position certainly did not hurt him last time, so the fact that he is on the far outside again does not worry me. He dictated his terms last time, so I doubt that jockey Jose Espinoza and trainer John Terranova, II will change their game plan for this one. He will have competition for the lead in the form of Offlee Fast, so if he does not get the lead, he will be fine as long as he is not too far off the pace. His only loss to date came in the Inaugural Stakes when he was further off the pace than he would have liked. [10 points]
As there are no true closers in this race, I expect that the field will not get strung out over too much ground. Offlee Fast and Falling Sky will go after the lead, and Verrazano and Purple Egg will be right there with them pressing the pace. The rest of the field will take up stalking positions behind the leaders. I will avoid the hyped up Purple Egg and Verrazano and go with Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky. They are proven over the Tampa Bay surface and were comfortably clear of the rest of the field in the Davis. I look for the trio of undefeated entrants to all leave with their first loss and for Falling Sky to climb the Derby points leader board with his third consecutive win.