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CAN VERRAZANO END NON-FAVORITE, HOME-COURSE STREAKS?

Since the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby regained its graded status for the 2002 edition, five of the 11 winners made their previous start at a track other than Tampa Bay Downs.
 
Although such a sample is limited, it goes against the common belief that a race over the track is a requirement for success in the track’s showcase event. In most cases, though, such exceptions to the accepted wisdom usually result from one horse simply being too strong for the competition.
 
Such recent history may be useful to bettors deciding whether Verrazano, trainer Todd Pletcher’s supremely talented youngster, will be at a disadvantage Saturday against horses familiar with the deep, sand-based Tampa Bay Downs surface.
 
Simply put, is Verrazano a legitimate Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands favorite, or will Saturday’s step up in competition find him wanting?
 
The 33rd renewal of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby – part of Churchill Downs’ first-year Kentucky Derby Championship Series to determine the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses on May 4 – is the 10th race on Saturday’s program, with an approximate post time of 5:15 p.m.
 
Also scheduled on Festival Day 33 are the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf course, which is the ninth race, and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the main track, the eighth race of the day.
 
Gates open at 10:30 a.m. Fans will receive a free Tampa Bay Downs umbrella with paid admission, while supplies last. Strawberry shortcake and strawberry jubilees will be sold outside the grandstand throughout the day.
 
Track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club Show begins at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the grandstand. The guest speaker is trainer Kenneth McPeek, who has entered Charles E. Fipke’s colt Java’s War in the Tampa Bay Derby.
 
Certainly bettors were not turned off in 2005 by Sun King’s lack of a prep race at Tampa Bay Downs. Coming off an impressive Gulfstream allowance victory three weeks earlier, the Nick Zito-trained charge was bet down to 1-20 and lived up to it, rolling to a three-and-a-quarter length victory from Forever Wild.
 
The latter, trained by Joan Scott, had raced four times at Tampa Bay Downs going into the Tampa Bay Derby, breaking his maiden and winning a $17,000 allowance. Those efforts undoubtedly helped Forever Wild record a Grade III placing, but he was never a match for Sun King, a career earner of $2.2-million with four career graded-stakes triumphs.
 
“Tampa Bay Downs is a great surface to train on, and you always feel it is beneficial having a race over the track,” Scott said. “But I don’t care how many times a horse has run here, quality does show up. Really good horses can overcome a lot, and a superior horse is going to have a much better shot at winning.”
 
Certainly, the three other horses that made their previous start at Gulfstream before shipping north to Oldsmar were high-quality racehorses. Equality, the 2002 Tampa Bay Derby for trainer H. Graham Motion, won the Gleaming Stakes later that year at Delaware. Region of Merit, the 2003 winner, did not win another stakes, but had seven victories and seven seconds and career earnings of almost $400,000.
 
And 2004 Tampa Bay Derby champ Limehouse, whose previous start for owner Dogwood Stable and trainer Pletcher was a victory in the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream, enjoyed an outstanding career before and after his lone Oldsmar effort. He won four graded stakes and $1.1-million in his three-year career.
 
Street Sense remains the premier example of a horse that shipped in to claim the Tampa Bay Derby while at the same time preparing for greater challenges ahead. In 2007, trainer Carl Nafzger mapped out a schedule that saw the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion run only twice as a 3-year-old before his victory in the Kentucky Derby.
“All we needed to do was to get him fresh and get him ready in two good races,” Nafzger said.
 
Both preps resulted in nose decisions, with Street Sense defeating Pletcher’s Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby (in stakes-record time of 1:43.11) and losing in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland to Dominican. Street Sense was at the top of his game on the first Saturday in May, dominating his 19 rivals, including runner-up Hard Spun, third-place finisher Curlin, Any Given Saturday and Dominican.
 
Street Sense remains the last horse to win the Tampa Bay Derby without benefit of a previous race at Tampa Bay Downs. Pletcher’s lone Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver – who ran third in the 2010 Tampa Bay Derby, behind Odysseus and Schoolyard Dreams – had not raced since winning the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in November as a 2-year-old.
 
The last favorite to win the Tampa Bay Derby was Sun King, although it is worth noting his victory extended a favorite-winning streak to three in a row.
 
In 2007, Street Sense, at 6-5, was second choice to 7-10 Any Given Saturday, who had won the Sam F. Davis Stakes a month earlier.
 
Although Limehouse is his only winner of the race, Pletcher has forged an amazing Tampa Bay Derby record. From 10 starters since 2000, he has saddled six runners-up – including four in a row from 2006-09 – two third-place finishers (including Super Saver) and last year’s fourth-place finisher, favorite Spring Hill Farm.
 
The latter suffered a right knee fracture during the Tampa Bay Derby and underwent surgery to have a screw inserted the following week. He made his return to competition at Gulfstream in December, and on Jan. 20 won an allowance/optional claiming race at the south Florida track.
 
Pletcher’s second-place finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby include his first starter in the race, 2000 runner-up Impeachment, a 21-1 shot who later finished third in the Grade II Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness; and 2006 runner-up Bluegrass Cat, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Grade I Travers and won the Grade I Haskell.
 
His Tampa Bay Derby record indicates that not only does Pletcher get quality horses, he has the skill to get them to the right spots while leaving a lot in the tank for even bigger races down the road.
 
This is the third consecutive year Pletcher has brought an unbeaten horse to the Tampa Bay Derby (his Park City, owned by Starlight Racing, is also 2-for-2). Like Verrazano, Spring Hill Farm had won his first two races at Gulfstream leading to the Oldsmar showcase. In 2011, Pletcher’s Brethren was 3-for-3, including a Grade III Sam F. Davis triumph, before placing third at odds of 1-2 behind long shots Watch Me Go and Crimson Knight.
 
The last year Pletcher did not saddle the Tampa Bay Derby favorite was 2009, when his 35-1 shot Join in the Dance finished second by a neck to Musket Man.
 
Here is the full Tampa Bay Derby field in post position order, with trainers and jockeys:
 
A1. Eton Blue, Nicholas Zito, Joe Bravo; 2. Purple Egg, Jane Cibelli, Elvis Trujillo; 3. Honorable Dillon, Eddie Kenneally, Corey Lanerie; 4. Java’s War, Kenneth McPeek, Willie Martinez; 5. Dynamic Sky, Mark Casse, Joel Rosario; 6. Verrazano, Todd Pletcer, John Velazquez; 7. Offlee Fast, Ronald Pellegrini, Jozbin Santana; 8. Park City, Todd Pletcher, Edgar Prado; 9. Falling Sky, John Terranova II, Jose Espinoza.
Tampa resident Chris Gunter won a 2013 Toyota Camry SE valued at more than $26,000 in a drawing Friday afternoon in The Silks Poker Room. Gunter’s winning ticket was pulled from more than 2,000 entries. He had qualified for the finals Feb. 8 with a hand of four jacks.
 
“It’s kind of crazy,” said the 27-year-old Gunter, who has been driving a 2006 car with more than 80,000 miles. “I didn’t really expect it, but I’m glad I came here today.” Nine additional qualifiers had their tickets drawn Friday for cash prizes of $599.
 
Daniel Centeno rode three winners on Friday’s card, two for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. and trainer Jamie Ness, to extend his meet-leading victory total to 60, seven more than runner-up Angel Serpa. Centeno won the track riding title four years in a row from 2006-10. Ness, who has won six consecutive training titles, is atop the conditioner standings with 35 victories (he tied with Gerald Bennett in 2010-11 and with Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10).
 
The Midwest-Ness-Centeno team won the first race, a six-furlong claiming event, with 4-year-old colt Scallion. In the third, a six-and-a-half furlong claiming contest, 4-year-old gelding Wild About Chrome scored his third career victory and third at the meet in three starts.
 
Centeno then won the 10th race, a mile turf claiming contest, on 4-year-old filly Gloriana for owner Mike Fitch and trainer Thomas Proctor.
 
Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode two winners Friday. Allen won the fourth, a maiden claiming race, with 3-year-old gelding Politically Steel for owner-trainer Ron Potts. He returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh, a seven-furlong claiming race, aboard 3-year-old filly Ghost Flower for owner Burkholder Stables and trainer Maria Bowersock.
 
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux won the ninth race, a maiden special weight, on 3-year-old colt Ghost Hunter. The first-time starter, who is owned by Triple K Stables and trained by Kim Chapman, beat Celtics Stride by a nose.
 
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 31, for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
 
 

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