Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Tampa Bay Derby

Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Tampa Bay Derby
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

The Grade 2, $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby  is the last 2021 Kentucky Derby qualifier held at Tampa Bay Downs, and features a sliding points scale of 50-20-10-5. The 1 1/16-mile contest attracted a dozen 3-year-old colts and geldings, including local Sam F. Davis (G3) hero Candy Man Rocket.

Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast and I sort out the contenders from the pretenders.



1. My Liberty

My Liberty earned the best speed figure of his career when finally breaking his maiden last out. That race occurred at Tampa Bay, but trainer Maria Mejia had to drop the colt all the way down to a $29,000 maiden special weight in order for him to win. Add in an experienced field and lack of two turn experience, and you get a hard pass from me.

Recent maiden winner My Liberty has a good/bad cycle going. The Maria Mejia trainee returns off a modest career-best 87 Brisnet Speed Rating. On the plus side, My Liberty likes Tampa and has enough gate speed to make at least the early stages of the race interesting. His dam’s half-brother is Oklahoma Derby (G3) winner Untrapped, so there is a bit of class in the family. My Liberty has a decent pedigree for mud. Tapizar is a strong 25-percent mud sire, and My Liberty’s dam won over an off track.  

2. Super Strong

This son of Super Saver debuted in a Group 1 race in Puerto Rico and came home a decisive winner. However, the pace was hot early and slowed to a crawl in the stretch, the final three furlongs coming in 37.91. Good form in Puerto Rico does not typically translate well to the states, but this colt does have a relentless stretch drive. Could be worth taking for a price.

This Puerto Rican Grade 1 winner is the Tampa Bay Derby mystery horse. The son of Kentucky Derby hero Super Saver is out of a stakes-placed daughter of Smart Strike, and his second dam is a half-sister to Tiznow, so Super Strong is bred to improve with maturity. His Febr. 3  five-furlong bullet work of 59.60 in company with Gunman (0-for-7 maiden claimer) was over a chewed-up Palm Meadows track. Both horses were urged through the stretch, with Super Strong prevailing easily. Super Strong’s most recent work wasn’t as impressive. He was lathered and rank on the inside of Uncork the Bottle (5-year-old allowance optional claiming class). Super Strong was hand urged slightly in the stretch, while Uncork the Bottle was moving more comfortably and that one could have taken over with greater urging. So what do we do with this Saffie Joseph, Jr. trainee? Use him as a wildcard bet if you’re playing the field. 

3. Candy Man Rocket

Candy Man Rocket’s flashy maiden breaking win was no fluke as the colt followed up that romp with a length victory in the Sam F. Davis in his graded stakes debut. His speed figure did regress, making me wonder if he will bounce here.

The Sam F. Davis hero made both his starts look easy this year. He’s returning with a pre-race bullet work at Payson Park. Stating the obvious, but there’s nothing not to like about him. We could get nick-picky about his Brisnet figures in his second start off the layoff or how Nova Rags and Hidden Stash were gaining in the stretch, but both saved ground around the turn while Candy Man Rocket went wide. The Bill Mott trainee may have gotten a little tired in his first start around two turns but should be stronger this time around. Candy Man Rocket’s first start was over an off track. Give him a do-over, since his sire hits with 30-percent winners on off tracks.

4. King of Dreams

King of Dreams debuted in the slop at Aqueduct, checking in a well beaten seventh. In his second start, the Juan Avila trainee rocketed to the lead and went coast-to-coast in an 8 1/2-furlong turf event. So now we’re switching back to dirt? Confused…

King of Dreams won handily on turf last out. He’s bred for turf by European champ Air Force Blue out of a stakes-placed turf miler, and his extended family are all turf horses. The Juan Avila trainee runs a little upright, not stretching his body out. King of Dreams showed speed/fade over mud in his debut. All six of Air Force Blue’s progeny who ran their first route on mud hit the board. Hmmm…

5. Boca Boy

I was not super high on Boca Boy in the Sam F. Davis. I did not like his morning-line odds considering his past performances up to that point, but his odds crept up and he ended up giving bettors a nice price by rounding out the superfecta after setting the pace. I expect the same here.

In his first start of the season, Boca Boy got a little tired setting sharp fractions in the Sam Davis Stakes and faded to fourth place. The Cheryl Winebaugh trainee won two of three starts over an off track. He had a second-to-last bullet breeze at Tampa and could hang around a little longer this time around. 

6. Awesome Gerry

This son of Liam’s Map has not visited the winner’s circle since his debut. In his most recent effort, he ran a well beaten seventh behind Holy Bull (G3) and Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Greatest Honour. The blinkers come off, but I still stand by what I said prior to the Holy Bull: ultimately Awesome Gerry will be a sprinter.

Awesome Gerry tries two turns again, hoping for a better result than his 17-length pounding in the Holy Bull (G3). His pedigree and performance say sprinter/miler. The blinkers come off in hopes of improvement. He’ll face pressure on the lead, and may fade after seven furlongs to a mile.

7. Moonlite Strike

Longshot Moonlite Strike exits the Smarty Jones where he was never a threat. He faces tougher company here. Pass.

Moonlite Strike won his debut over a sloppy track. In his first start away from home, the son of Liam’s Map was was keen early and didn’t want to settle in the Smarty Jones Stakes. He decided he had enough once the running began and was going up and down in the stretch. Tampa Bay fixture Daniel Centeno takes over the reins. The Joseph trainee’s speed figures are “eh,” and he strikes me as an also-ran.

8. Hidden Stash

Hidden Stash was charging hard at the end of the Sam F. Davis but ran out of real estate as they flashed under the wire. This will be his second start off the layoff, giving him room to continue to improve. I like the price, and I like this colt’s chances.

After saved ground early before switching to the outside, Hidden Stash gained with every stride in the Sam Davis but ran out of ground at the end. That was an impressive race first off the layoff. Vicky Oliver gave Hidden Stash a pre-race bullet work at Payson. The colt has an excellent mud pedigree. Nothing hidden about his chances. 

9. Unbridled Honor

Trained by Todd Pletcher, it took a big drop in class for this colt to get his maiden victory. Though it came at Tampa Bay, his speed figures are simply average. Pass.

The well-bred Unbridled Honor graduated in his first 3-year-old start of the season, which just happened to be at Tampa Bay Downs. He faced a wall of horses around the turn, then found a seam in late stretch, diving between horses. It was a professional effort. He has been working phenomenally at Palm Meadows, posting three consecutive bullets. The large, pretty gray colt, who physically reminds me of Tacitus, was not pushed in his last work, which was over a chewed-up Palm Beach Downs course. Unbridled Honor’s dam is a half-sister to Grade 1 winners and sires Roman Ruler and El Corredor plus Grade 1-placed Maimonides. I think he’s the “other” Pletcher horse.

10. Helium

Out of turf runner Thundering Emilia, Helium in undefeated in two career starts. The caveat is that those wins came over Woodbine’s all weather track. Additionally, the son of Ironicus has not raced since October. Facing two turns, dirt, and stiff company for the first time sends up a lot of red flags. Thanks, but no thanks.

Helium faces a tall task in his first outing of the year, trying two turns on dirt against graded stakes company. His dam was a stakes winner on dirt and turf in South America and the U.S. at 1 1/16-miles. Mark Casse worked Helium with Gretzky the Great on Feb. 13. Helium stayed with his partner but was working harder. Gretzky the Great finished third in the John Battaglia Memorial in his 3-year-old debut. I don’t see Helium rising to the top in the Tampa Bay Derby, but he could grab a lower exacta spot.

11. Promise Keeper

If you insist on betting on a Pletcher horse, this is the one to go with. Though he was thumped in his debut by Candy Man Rocket, he bounced by nicely to take a mile maiden event by five lengths in the slop. That earned him one of the top speed figures in the field. His second crack at Candy Man Rocket could be more successful, but only if he does not get hung up in a battle for the lead.

This beautiful Chestnut colt, who resembles his damsire Curlin, has a giant stride. Six furlongs wasn’t his game in January. He graduated over at a mile in his next start, flashing a high cruising speed over a sloppy track, winning as he pleased and never feeling the stick at any point.  Promise Keeper outworked Prime Factor in a breeze Feb. 20. The Todd Pletcher trainee’s half-sister Wicked Awesome is a stakes winner at 1 1/16-miles and Grade 3-placed at 1 1/8-miles. His extended family includes Grade 1 winner Great Hunter and multiple graded winner Owendale, who was third in the 2019 Preakness.

12. Sittin On Go

Sitting On Go looked really nice in his first two career starts, but he has barely lifted a hoof since then. He lost his last three races by a combined 34 lengths. Another pass for me.

Sittin On Go showed early brilliance last year, then… crickets. The Dale Romans trainee stumbled slightly at the start of the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) but didn’t make up ground at any point. Sittin On Go has a strong turf pedigree. I think it’s time for the switch.

Final Thoughts

Laurie: Todd Pletcher has won four of the last eight editions of the Tampa Bay Derby. The favorite doesn’t fare well in this race; only three won in the last decade, although they completed the exacta or trifecta in the last three years. So far, only one Sam F. Davis winner in the last decade (Destin, 2016) was successful in the Tampa Bay Derby, although two who placed in the Sam Davis won the Tampa Bay Derby.

There’s a ton of speed in this race, so naturally, I pick a speed horse to win it. However, I don’t think Promise Keeper needs the lead, and his outside post gives options.

Boca Boy, Moonlight Strike, and My Liberty do their best on the lead. The trio could hook up early, or we may see a pace duel between whomever has the cleanest break. Candy Man Rocket likes to press, and I expect Promise Keeper may also press the pace. Hidden Stash is our confirmed closer, although he’ll close from mid-pack. He’s dependent upon a good trip and not having to go too wide.  

Hidden Stash huge in the Sam Davis, and Vicky Oliver hits with 25% win and 55% ITM second off a layoff on dirt. I don’t like how Candy Man Rocket was all out to win the Sam F. Davis and was passed shortly after the wire. 

Ashley: There are several runners in this field that do their best work on the lead. I see this setting up for someone sitting right off the pace to mid-pack. Candy Man Rocket is the logical choice here based on his Sam F. Davis win, but the regression in his speed figure does concern me. I really liked Hidden Stash’s effort in that same race, and that’s the direction in which I’m leaning. Rain is in the forecast, but I think talent will prevail.











5. BOCA BOY (15-1)

Meet Laurie Ross

 HRN Pedigree Analyst 


 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

 ThoroFan Board Member

 Member – NTWAB

Through hands-on work at barns, I learned valuable lessons about Thoroughbred conformation, gait, and temperament and later worked withThoroughbred rescue/re-train organizations. I have committed my passion for horses to the intensive study of pedigree and breeding theory for the last 20 years. 

I support clients with all aspects of pedigree/breeding analysis, research, sales, catalogue review, and recommendations on claims or private sales. Clients include national leading owners, racing/breeding syndicates, the little guy with one mare, and everyone in between. 10-20% of all proceeds are donated to Thoroughbred rescue & retraining groups. Check out my website, Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds, and the IMTBreds blog.

I welcome your questions regarding pedigree, handicapping, and breeding. If you would like me to cover a specific topic, please contact me. 

Twitter: @IMTBreds
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