Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse, the trainers of the last two winners of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, could account for as many as four starters in the 34th edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Festival Day centerpiece for 3-year-olds Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs.
Festival Day 2014 will be the most lucrative card in the 88-year history of the track, with the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf and the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf also on tap.
Pletcher, the six-time recipient of the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer who sent out Verrazano to a Tampa Bay Derby victory last year, is expected to aim for back-to-back Tampa Bay Derby scores with Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Vinceremos and Surfing U S A, who finished second in his most recent start to leading Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prospect Top Billing in an allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.
Casse, who has won five Sovereign Awards as the Outstanding Trainer in Canada, won the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective. He plans to return to Oldsmar with Sam F. Davis fourth-place finisher Matador and will also saddle Conquest Titan, who rallied from far back to finish second to Cairo Prince in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.
In the Holy Bull, Conquest Titan ran down third-place finisher Intense Holiday, who returned to win last weekend’s Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
Other likely Tampa Bay Derby starters include Grade I winner Bond Holder, from the barn of Doug O’Neill; Asserting Bear, trained by Reade Baker; Coltimus Prime, trained by Justin Nixon; and Hy Kodiak Warrior, conditioned by Marcial Navarro.
“(The Holy Bull) was an excellent race for Conquest Titan,” Casse said of the son of Birdstone-Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft, owned by Ernie Semersky and Dory Newell’s Conquest Stables, LLC. “Gulfstream has such a speed bias, it is difficult to come from out of it and win. We had hoped he would break better, but he got sandwiched at the start and started picking it up at the half-mile pole.
“The fact he ran past Intense Holiday in the stretch, and that he beat (Gulfstream Park Derby winner and Grade II Fountain of Youth runner-up) General a Rod at Churchill Downs (in a mile allowance on Nov. 30) says a lot,” Casse added. “They say you are judged by the company you keep, and he’s keeping good company.”
Casse said Conquest Titan will be ridden in the Tampa Bay Derby by Shaun Bridgmohan. The trainer has tossed out the colt’s last-place performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, in which he attended the pace for the first half before dropping back.
Changing a horse’s running style is never easy, but it appears to have paid dividends with Conquest Titan, who breezed five furlongs Saturday in 1:02.25 at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach in company with another Birdstone colt, 4-year-old Brilliant Comet.
“After the Breeders’ Cup, we took him back to Churchill because what we were doing was not working and I knew we had to come up with another plan, which was to get him to relax and come running,” Casse said. “We know him better now and Shaun knows him better. He probably has one of the best turns of foot of any horse I’ve trained. When the rider pushes the gas pedal, he had better be tied on.”
Matador, who won the Cup and Saucer Stakes at Woodbine as a 2-year-old, will again be ridden by Julien Leparoux. The Oxley-owned colt was less than a length behind Vinceremos at the finish of the Sam F. Davis, and Casse said an unfortunate mishap at the top of the stretch may have cost the son of Malibu Moon all chance at victory.
“He got hit over the top of the nose by the whip of the jockey on (fifth-place finisher Asserting Bear), and I think that stopped his momentum. He came back to the barn with a swollen nose,” Casse said. “That was his first start in almost three months and his first time on dirt, and he ran 20-30 feet farther than the winner, according to Trakus, so I think he ran a heck of a race. Hopefully with a better trip and the experience over dirt, he’ll improve.”
Matador worked five furlongs Saturday in 1:03.65, but Casse said the time was influenced by a slower workmate.
“We’ll come in the same way we always do, the morning of the race from Palm Meadows,” said Casse, who also plans to run Mike Rutherford’s Resistivity in the Florida Oaks. “We love Tampa Bay Downs – it is a fair racetrack but more important, it is a safe racetrack. On the road to the Kentucky Derby, it’s not just having the best horse. You have to have a healthy, happy horse and that can be a chore, but I think Tampa Bay Downs is a big asset to that.”
The Tampa Bay Derby is part of Churchill Downs’ “Road to the Kentucky Derby” Championship Series points system that determines the 20 starters for the Run for the Roses, should more than that number pass the entry box.
The Tampa Bay Derby awards 50 points to the winner, 20 points for second, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. The Tampa Bay Derby has produced two of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners: the 2007 Oldsmar winner, Street Sense, and the 2010 third-place finisher, Super Saver.
Both of Pletcher’s probable entrants worked four furlongs today at Palm Meadows, with Vinceremos breezing the distance in 48.45 seconds – the fifth-fastest time of 33 at the distance – and Surfing U S A going in 51 seconds.
The owners of Sam F. Davis winner Vinceremos, WinStar Farm, LLC and Twin Creeks Racing Stables, LLC, will collect the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus if the son of 2009 Santa Anita Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile wins the Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 3.
Additionally, Ben Wheelock of Hudson, Fla., stands to win big by collecting the Lambholm South $100,000 Fan Bonus if Vinceremos completes the three-race sweep. Wheelock’s name was drawn by winning Sam F. Davis Stakes jockey Edgar Prado from an approximate 300 fans who picked Vinceremos.
Vinceremos is named after a therapeutic horse riding center in Loxahatchee, Fla., that serves children and adults with developmental, physical and psychological disabilities. “Vinceremos means to overcome in Latin, and I like both connotations to that,” said WinStar President/CEO & Racing Manager Elliott Walden during a recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference.
In the Sam F. Davis, Vinceremos dropped back on the turn under Prado, then found another gear late to edge Pletcher-trained stablemate Harpoon by a nose.
“What I like about (Vinceremos) is the fact that he gets headed and keeps competing,” Walden said. “And in some ways I wish he would go ahead and leave his competition, because he looks like he has more abilities than they have to this point. You go back to his maiden race, he was up a length-and-a half at the eighth pole, and then again when he cut the corner in the Sam F. Davis he looked like he was well on his way to victory and then kind of greenly quit running.
“So I would hope he builds upon his own experience and improves that running style,” Walden added.
On today’s card, 8-year-old gelding See I A won his fourth consecutive race at the meeting, rolling to a four-and-three-quarter length victory in the seventh race under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. See I A’s time of 1:23.02 for seven furlongs was .99 seconds off the track record. Owned by Averill Racing, LLC and trained by Gerald Bennett, See I A is 21-for-50 lifetime, including a victory in the 2011 Pelican Stakes. His career earnings are $286,883.
Allen, Fernando De La Cruz and Harry Vega all rode two winners today. Allen’s other score came in the third race on 3-year-old gelding Pinetree Pro for owner Burkholder Stables and trainer Maria Bowersock. De La Cruz won the fourth race on 4-year-old filly Angel Socks for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and trainer Jamie Ness and the eighth on 5-year-old gelding Soup de Ville for owner Sunshine Racing Stable and trainer Jason DaCosta.
Vega triumphed in the second race on 4-year-old colt Awarding for Burnham Stable and co-owner/trainer Lori Smock and in the ninth, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, on 4-year-old gelding Bold Distinction for breeder-owner Robert D. Gibson and trainer John Vinson. Bold Distinction paid $77.80 to win.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track 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.