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More than one qualified observer has suggested the sky is the limit for Verrazano, the unbeaten morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.
Before Verrazano ascends to the stratosphere, though, he’ll need to contend with a pair of 3-year-olds who already have reached lofty heights: Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky, the 1-2 finishers in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 2.
Those three are among nine entered for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby, the main event on a 12-race Festival Day 33 card that begins at 12:38 p.m. The 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 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 scheduled guest speaker is trainer Kenneth McPeek, who has entered Charles E. Fipke’s colt Java’s War in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt Verrazano, who rose to the top of forecasters’ Kentucky Derby lists with his 16 ¼-length victory at Gulfstream on Feb. 2 in a one-mile, one-turn allowance in his second career start, will be attempting to become the first horse since Street Sense in 2007 to win the Tampa Bay Derby without a previous start at the track.
Pletcher can attest, however, that such a feat is within reach. In 2004, he saddled Limehouse for a Tampa Bay Derby victory in his only Oldsmar appearance, a month after that colt’s victory in the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream.
But Mark Casse, the trainer of Dynamic Sky, welcomes the chance to face the heralded south Florida invader. Dynamic Sky is following the path of Casse’s 2012 Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective, who started his 3-year-old season by winning the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs before finishing second in the Davis, then winning the Derby.
Dynamic Sky won the Pasco on Jan. 12 and was a fast-closing second by a neck to Falling Sky in the Davis.
“I think it’s a huge advantage to have had a couple of races over the track,” Casse said earlier this week during a conference call. “Verrazano is a tough horse and he’s going to be tough on Saturday. But right now, he’s coming to play in our house. He still has to go two turns for the first time and still has to get over the Tampa surface.
“If Verrazano breaks clean and can carry his speed two turns, we probably can’t beat him,” added Casse, whose colt Gunderman finished third in Verrazano’s last start. “He may be the next Secretariat, but we all know we’ve seen similar types, and when you go around two turns it can change things sometimes.”
Casse is switching jockeys for Dynamic Sky, from Luis Contreras to Joel Rosario, who won last week’s Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct last week on undefeated Vyjack. Rosario won two graded turf stakes on the Sam F. Davis card: the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour on Old Tune and the Grade III, $150,000 Florida Oaks on Tapicat.
Verrazano will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who is seeking his first Tampa Bay Derby victory.
Pletcher said Verrazano has been letter-perfect in his preparations and races. “He trained so well before his maiden race, we anticipated he’d run well,” the conditioner said. “Then he trained just as good or better for his second race. When you have one that trains as well as he does and has run as well as he has, you want to see more of the same.”
Davis winner Falling Sky seems to have a penchant for getting overlooked when talk turns to Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands candidates, but that doesn’t bother his trainer, John Terranova II.
Falling Sky, who was scratched from the Grade II Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream two weeks ago, breezed five furlongs in 59.78 seconds Sunday at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, reaffirming Terranova’s belief the colt is approaching Saturday in even better form than the Davis.
“He is doing absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t be happier with the way he is training to this race,” Terranova said. “He keeps moving forward, and we hope he shows up with a big effort.”
Terranova is managing to keep the hype surrounding Verrazano from affecting his preparations. “Obviously, people are going to talk about certain horses more than others,” he said. “But at the end of the day, performance is what really matters.”
Falling Sky will again be ridden by Jose Espinoza, who has been on astounding run recently with Terranova-trained horses. In addition to their Davis victory, Terranova and Espinoza have teamed to win the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade III, $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston with 5-year-old Swift Warrior. Last weekend, Espinoza traveled to New York to ride 33-1 shot West Hills Giant to a runner-up finish in the Gotham for Terranova.
“Jose has always been a quality rider,” Terranova said. “He is very underrated, and we are very happy to have him.”
Falling Sky is one of two sons of the stallion Lion Heart entered in the Tampa Bay Derby. The other, the Jane Cibelli-trained Purple Egg, is 3-for-3 in his career, including a Dec. 1 victory in the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
Two other stakes winners will contest the Tampa Bay Derby. Honorable Dillon, trained by Eddie Kenneally, won the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 2. The other is the Kenneth McPeek-trained Java’s War, who won the Sunday Silence Stakes on the turf at Louisiana Downs in September.
The non-stakes winners in the Tampa Bay Derby field, in addition to Verrazano, are the Pletcher-trained Park City, like his stablemate 2-for-2 lifetime; Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito’s Eton Blue; and Offlee Fast, trained by Ronald Pellegrini.
Pletcher is likely to also have the favorite for the Hillsborough Stakes in 5-year-old Brazilian-bred mare Old Tune, who won the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 2 in her first U.S. start. The winner of the Triple Crown for fillies in her homeland is on a five-race winning streak. Rosario will again be in the saddle.
The Hillsborough has drawn a full field of 12. Second choice on the morning line is 5-year-old Mystical Star, from the barn of Christophe Clement. Off since Nov. 10, the Grade II winner will be ridden by Espinoza.
A field of 10 sophomore fillies will contest the Suncoast Stakes. The morning-line choice is Close Hatches, a William Mott-trained filly who will be ridden by Rosario. Close Hatches won her only start Jan. 26 at Gulfstream, drawing away by seven lengths in an 11-horse field in 1:23.86 for seven furlongs.
Another highlight of Saturday’s card is the return to action of fan favorite It’s Me Mom, who holds the Tampa Bay Downs six-furlong track record of 1:08.67. The 5-year-old mare will compete in the second race, a $35,000, six-and-a-half furlong handicap for older fillies and mares.
It’s Me Mom is owned by her breeders, Jean and Thomas Bosch, and trained by Lynne Scace. Regular jockey Willie Martinez will be aboard. Idle since a fourth-place finish last September to subsequent Eclipse Award Female Champion Sprinter Groupie Doll in the Grade II Presque Isle Downs Masters, It’s Me Mom won the Minaret Stakes and Florida Cup Hilton Garden Inn Sprint last season at Tampa Bay Downs, in addition to taking the Florida Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream.
Tampa Bay Downs is offering more than $800,000 in total purse money on the Saturday program.
Bernell Rhone will be honored Saturday as the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month. The North Dakota native has climbed to eighth place in the meet standings with 14 victories.
If he had his druthers, Rhone would split the award into four pieces. The biggest chunk would go to his wife of 36 years, Cindy, who runs and organizes the barn, checks horses’ legs and ponies horses during the afternoon. Next are their children: daughter LeAnn Butler, Rhone’s assistant and main gallop person, and son Scott Rhone, who shoes Dad’s string of 22 horses.
Still another piece of the award would go to son-in-law Dean Butler, who rode each of Rhone’s five winners during a recent hot streak that clinched the honor. “He’s riding good and the horses are running good, and that makes me look better,” Rhone said.
LeAnn and Dean have two daughters: Kayleigh, 6, and Kendall, 2. “That’s the best part, having my grandkids around,” Rhone said. “I’m living the dream.”
One of the most intriguing horses in the Rhone stable is 5-year-old Mexican-bred Tolomeo, a speedy sprinter who has a pair of seconds at the meet in allowance/optional claiming company. But the horse in Rhone’s care with the most potential is Arindel Farm LLC’s 3-year-old Gallico, a Kentucky-homebred son of Mr. Greeley out of Argentine Group I winner and U.S. multiple-graded stakes winner Safari Queen. Gallico came from last to break his maiden last month going a mile on the turf under Butler.
“He is a super-well-bred, magnificent looking colt,” Rhone said. “He’s kind of a slow learner, but he is coming around and I think he can develop into a nice stakes contender, or even a stakes winner.”
Friday’s 10-race card begins at 12:40 p.m. 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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