The field for Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby began taking shape with the announcement by Tampa Bay Downs stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawzyk on Sunday that at least eight 3-year-olds – including five stakes winners – are expected for the mile-and-a-sixteenth contest.
The Tampa Bay Derby is the main event of Festival Day 33, the track’s most lucrative day of Thoroughbred racing, with three stakes worth $600,000 and nine additional races. The Tampa Bay Derby is also part of the new points system being employed by Churchill Downs to determine which 20 horses qualify for the 139th running of the $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 4.
As part of the First Leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Derby will award 50 points to the winner, 20 to the runner-up, 10 for third place and 5 for fourth.
Also on tap Saturday are the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the main track. Stanislawzyk expects a full field of 12 for the Hillsborough and 7-to-9 for the Suncoast.
But with the Kentucky Derby 62 days away as this is written, the Tampa Bay Derby will be the focal point of Saturday’s festivities. Among those expected to compete in the 33rd renewal of the race are the first two finishers from the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 2 at Tampa Bay Downs, Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky.
The Davis winner, Falling Sky, has developed into something of a Cinderella story for his connections. His owners – Maurice and Samantha Regan’s Newtown Anner Stud, James Covello and Joseph Bulger – purchased the Pennsylvania-bred colt for $425,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s winter mixed sale on Jan. 15, less than three weeks before the Davis.
Trainer John Terranova II cross-entered Falling Sky in the Davis and the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream before electing to come to Oldsmar. And when jockey Luis Saez decided to remain at Gulfstream on Feb. 2, unsung New York journeyman Jose Espinoza picked up the mount and masterfully guided Falling Sky to a gate-to-wire victory.
Falling Sky breezed five furlongs Sunday in 59.78 seconds, the fastest of 21 workouts at the distance at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach.
Dynamic Sky’s rally in the Davis came up a neck short, but the Mark Casse-trained youngster will have the advantage of two races over the Tampa Bay Downs surface should he make it to the starting gate Saturday.
In fact, the Ontario-bred Dynamic Sky is following the same path as Prospective, Casse’s 2012 Tampa Bay Derby winner. Both Dynamic Sky and Prospective won the $100,000 Pasco Stakes here in their 3-year-old debuts before finishing second in the Davis. Dynamic Sky finished sixth in last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, beaten five-and-a-quarter lengths by winner Shanghai Bobby. Dynamic Sky – owned by John C. Oxley – also worked Sunday at Palm Meadows, breezing five furlongs in 1:01.87.
Casse is one of four trainers with Tampa Bay Derby victories expected to vie for another. The most notable because of the anticipation surrounding his horse’s first stakes start is Todd Pletcher, who is expected to saddle 2-for-2 Verrazano.
Pletcher won the 2004 Tampa Bay Derby with Dogwood Stables’ Limehouse.
Verrazano won both starts at Gulfstream under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez by a combined 24 lengths, earning sensational Beyer Speed Figures of 94 and 105. The Kentucky-bred son of More Than Ready is owned by Let’s Go Stable, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Susan Magnier. Verrazano breezed four furlongs Sunday at Palm Meadows in 48.39 seconds.
Trainer Nick Zito won the 2005 Tampa Bay Derby with Sun King, and the popular Hall of Famer is expected back Saturday with Eton Blue for owner Marylou Whitney.
Eton Blue is a Kentucky homebred son of Giant’s Causeway out of Whitney’s Bird Town, who won the Grade I Kentucky Oaks and Grade I Acorn Stakes as a 3-year-old. Eton Blue finished second to Verrazano Feb. 2 at Gulfstream in an allowance/optional claiming race, albeit by 16-plus lengths, while giving 4 pounds to the winner.
Eton Blue breezed four furlongs Saturday at Palm Meadows in 47.04, second-fastest of 30 works at the distance.
Go back 14 years to find the other past Tampa Bay Derby-winning trainer with a horse for Saturday: 1999 and Kenneth McPeek, who is expected to send Java’s War here for his 3-year-old debut. A homebred son of War Pass-Java, by Rainbow Quest, for owner Charles Fipke, Java’s War turned in a bullet five-furlong workout of 59.89 Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Java’s War won the Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs on the turf last September and was third in the Grade I Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, beaten three-quarters of a length by runner-up Dynamic Sky.
McPeek’s 1999 Tampa Bay Derby winner was Pineaff. The other current Tampa Bay Derby probables include Honorable Dillon, who won the Grade II Hutcheson going seven furlongs at Gulfstream on Feb. 2 and is trained by Eddie Kenneally; the Jane Cibelli-trained Purple Egg, whose 3-for-3 record includes the Dec. 1 Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs; and Offlee Fast from the barn of Ronald Pellegrini, who was second by a head in his previous start Feb. 16 at Gulfstream to Pletcher’s multiple-Grade I placed Capo Bastone.