OLDSMAR, FL. – Three for the roses.
Verrazano, Java’s War and Falling Sky – the top three finishers in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9 – are among the 19 3-year-olds that will enter the Churchill Downs starting gate at 6:24 p.m. on Saturday for the 139th edition of the Grade I, $2-million Kentucky Derby.
The field was trimmed by one with the scratch Friday of Black Onyx due to a chip in his left front ankle.
Tampa Bay Downs will offer the simulcast of the mile-and-a-quarter Run for the Roses following its own 11-race Thoroughbred card, which begins at 12:30 p.m. The gates open at 10 a.m., and Tampa Bay Downs will present a full menu of simulcasting from numerous tracks, beginning with the first race from Churchill at 10:30.
In keeping with the Bluegrass State theme, Tampa Bay Downs will sell the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, a mint julep, in souvenir Derby glasses. The Gift Shop on the first floor of the grandstand will offer such Kentucky Derby merchandise as T-shirts, caps, shot glasses and souvenir glasses, as well as other memorabilia.
The three horses mentioned above will each be bidding to become the third horse to run in the Tampa Bay Derby and win the Kentucky Derby. Street Sense won both races in 2007, and Super Saver won the 2010 Kentucky Derby after finishing third in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Others have come close. As far back as 1982, Reinvested, who won the second running of what was then known as the Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby, finished third in the Louisville showcase. The reputation of the Tampa Bay Downs main track as a deep and demanding surface that promotes fitness and stamina had begun to spread.
In 1999, Menifee finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby, then just missed catching Charismatic in the Kentucky Derby. Bluegrass Cat was second in both races in 2006, although he never threatened Barbaro at Churchill Downs. In 2009, Musket Man used a Tampa Bay Derby victory as a springboard to third-place efforts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
At morning-line odds of 4-1, Verrazano is second choice to Grade I Florida Derby winner Orb at 7-2. Verrazano’s Tampa Bay Derby victory was his third this year; with a 4-for-4 record, the Todd Pletcher-trained horse is the only unbeaten in the field.
Java’s War, who won the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland five weeks after his runner-up effort in Oldsmar, is 15-1 on the morning line. Falling Sky, who finished fourth in the Arkansas Derby after his third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, is 50-1.
This is the first time the top three finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby have gone on to run in the Kentucky Derby. An offbeat Tampa Bay Downs betting angle for the Derby involves Java’s War and Florida Derby runner-up Itsmyluckyday. Although the latter has not run here, their trainers – Kenneth McPeek, with Java’s War, and Eddie Plesa, Jr. – were both guests on track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club Show this season. It would seem to be an exacta combination not out of the realm of possibility (McPeek also trains 50-1 shot Frac Daddy).
The fun at Tampa Bay Downs will carry over into Sunday’s 11-race card. Sunday is Fan Appreciation Day, with free admission and $1 hot dogs, sodas and draft beers from noon-3 p.m.
Monday marks the beginning of an eight-week hiatus in the 2012-13 meet. The meet officially concludes on June 30 with a full card of Thoroughbred racing.
Sometimes the best Kentucky Derby stories get lost in the shuffle. Such is the case with veteran jockey Jose Espinoza, who is slated to ride 50-1 shot Giant Finish in his first Derby. A 43-year-old native of Mexico City, Espinoza is the older brother of jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby on War Emblem.
Giant Finish might wind up as the longest shot in the race, but that doesn’t matter to Espinoza, a native of Mexico City who was part of the Tampa Bay Downs riding colony for three months. He was watching the 2002 Derby from the jockeys’ room at Belmont Park when his brother took War Emblem on a gate-to-wire ride to horse racing immortality (War Emblem and Victor Espinoza also won the Preakness).
“I was so proud of my brother, and so excited,” the elder Espinoza said earlier during the current Tampa Bay Downs meet. “It is every jockey’s dream to win the Derby. We’re all looking for a 3-year-old to get to Kentucky.”
A regular on the New York circuit for many years, Jose Espinoza rode Derby entrant Falling Sky to victory here on Feb. 2 in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes; two weeks later, he piloted Swift Warrior to victory in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf.
Both victories were for trainer John Terranova II, and Espinoza left Tampa Bay Downs hopeful he would stick with Falling Sky after they managed a third-place finish in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
In the interim, Espinoza picked up the mount on Giant Finish for trainer Anthony Dutrow in the Grade III Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 23. Their third-place performance gave Giant Finish only 10 Derby qualifying points, so it seemed the New York-bred would be on the outside looking in when it came time to determine the 20-horse field.
Meanwhile, Terranova switched riders on Falling Sky for the Grade I Arkansas Derby to Luis Saez, who will also ride him in the Kentucky Derby.
That seemed to closer the door on Espinoza’s Derby chances, but several defections among the top 20 in points enabled Giant Finish to make the cutoff. His owners – Sunrise Stables, Gary Tolchin, Aubrey Flanagan and Bob Smith – elected to take the chance, shipping him from Maryland to Louisville by van Thursday morning, and Dutrow decided to stay with Espinoza.
A victory by Giant Finish would make sibling history, times two. In addition to the Espinoza brotherhood, trainer Dutrow is a brother of Richard Dutrow, Jr., who won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown.
Despite having left Tampa Bay Downs almost two months ago, Espinoza remains 15th in the jockey standings with 20 victories from 84 mounts. He was named the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month in February.
Friday’s card featured trainer Jennifer Quinones and jockey Francisco Maysonett teaming for two victories. They won the second race, a mile-and-40-yard claiming event, with 4-year-old gelding Memorys N Dreams, who is owned by Quinones and Jeremy Yassen. In the fifth, a seven-furlong maiden claiming race, Maysonett rode 3-year-old colt Carni to victory for Quinones and owners Hargus Sexton and William D. Pate.
Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno also rode two winners. He won the third race, a six-and-a-half furlong maiden claiming event, on 3-year-old colt Red Roma for owner-trainer Lloyd Lockhart. He returned to the winner’s circle after the ninth, a six-furlong maiden claiming contest for 3-year-old fillies, on Come Out and Play for owner Carol Kemp and trainer Max Ubide.
Through Saturday, card players in The Silks Poker Room have the opportunity to qualify for a drawing to win a Toyota 4Runner from Wesley Chapel Toyota Honda. In any of the cash games, a hand of aces-full or better with one card earns one drawing ticket; four-of-a-kind or better with both cards earns two tickets; a straight flush earns three tickets; and a royal flush earns five tickets.
The drawing for the 4Runner will be held Sunday and the winner must be present to attend. In addition, nine tickets will be drawn that day for $599 cash prizes. The Silks Poker Room is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.