If television executives decide to produce a soap opera around horse racing, the trials and tribulations of Purple Egg would be a compelling storyline.
Even though the Kentucky-bred son of Lion Heart-Luminous Prize, by Prized, is 3-for-3, a cloak of mystery surrounds him entering Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby. Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jane Cibelli says Purple Egg has the most potential of any horse she has trained, but the time has arrived to turn potential into performance if Purple Egg is to fulfill the lofty expectations of his supporters.
“There has been a lot of hype about him because he’s the local horse, and I think a lot of people want to see him do well,” Cibelli said. “He has never been beaten, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. He has a tremendous turn of foot, but does he have that turn of foot going two turns? Can he handle this kind of competition? He is a good horse, but is he that good?
“All that is going to be answered Saturday,” Cibelli said.
Nine 3-year-olds are entered in the 33rd edition of the Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of the track’s Festival Day 33. The Tampa Bay Derby will be the 10th race on a 12-race card scheduled to begin at 12:38 p.m. Also on tap are the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf and the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards on the main track.
Purple Egg, owned by the Goodwood Racing II syndicate formed by Cibelli, will make his first start as a 3-year-old in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby. His previous effort resulted in victory Dec. 1 in the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes in stakes-record time of 1:09.93 for six furlongs. Among the horses in Purple Egg’s rearview mirror that day was fourth-place finisher Falling Sky, who would return to Oldsmar to win the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 2.
After the Inaugural, Cibelli chose to point Purple Egg toward the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1 as a bridge to the Davis. But Purple Egg developed a high temperature, which started as a minor issue but wound up bringing his progress to a screeching halt.
“I foolishly tried to push him then for the (Jan. 12) Pasco Stakes, and he got sick again and everything went out the window because he wasn’t going to be ready for the Davis, either,” Cibelli said. “There is a saying in this business that if you don’t give horses time, they’ll make you give them time, and that’s exactly what happened.
“He’s not a horse that gets sick a lot. I think it was just that I pushed on him too much,” Cibelli added.
Purple Egg’s most recent recorded workout was a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 on Feb. 24, the best of 25 at the distance that day at Tampa Bay Downs. Cibelli said he lost weight from that effort, so she sent him on an open 1-mile gallop last weekend before pronouncing him fit and ready to go.
Purple Egg will be ridden by Elvis Trujillo, and therein resides another chapter of the horse’s saga. Trujillo was named to ride Purple Egg in his first two scheduled starts at Monmouth Park last summer, but the high-spirited youngster unseated the jockey both times on the way to the starting gate, leading him to be scratched from both races.
Soon after, Cibelli decided to geld Purple Egg to make him more manageable.
“With all that happened the first two times, I was a little reluctant at first to put Elvis back on him,” Cibelli said. “The horse is quick and very athletic and he’ll turn on a dime, and I think Elvis kind of fell asleep on him when they got to the gate the second time. The next thing he knew, Purple Egg wheeled and that was the end of Elvis.
“But he’s been asking me for months to ride him and is excited about the opportunity. Hopefully he will stay on him this time,” Cibelli said with a chuckle.
Goodwood Racing II is one of several ownership syndicates begun by Cibelli to attract more owners to Thoroughbred racing. Swen Johnson owns 40 percent of Purple Egg; Stretch Run Racing, managed by Steve Feingold, is a 20-percent owner; and several individuals – among them Cibelli – own the other 40 percent. Purple Egg was a $22,000 purchase at Keeneland as a yearling. The Goodwood Racing II syndicate includes 3-year-old filly Swear Me In and 3-year-old gelding Judge Lew.
Cibelli knows facing the likes of the highly touted Verrazano; the first two finishers in the Davis, Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky; and Hutcheson Stakes winner Honorable Dillon on Saturday is a tall order, especially after a three-plus-month layoff from competition. But it also is important to see if Purple Egg deserves to be mentioned as a Triple Crown candidate with Louisville only eight weeks away.
“This horse has a tremendous following, so there is a certain amount of pressure involved in not wanting people to be disappointed,” she said. “But the biggest pressure right now is to get from here to Saturday without something going wrong. I feel like when he gets in the gate, I’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief.”
Cibelli is glad to focus on the big picture now that Purple Egg is back on his game. “Sick horses get well, and it’s only March. He has his whole 3-year-old year ahead of him,” she said. “He is chomping at the bit to run. He’s really on his toes and he is playing around in a good way – not trying to get out of work, but just doing his thing.”
Here is the full Tampa Bay Derby field in post position order, with trainers and jockeys:
1. 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 Pletcher, John Velazquez; 7. Offlee Fast, Ronald Pellegrini, Jozbin Santana; 8. Park City, Todd Pletcher, Edgar Prado; 9. Falling Sky, John Terranova II, Jose Espinoza.
Jockey Huber Villa-Gomez rode two winners on Wednesday’s card. He won the second race, a mile-and-40-yard maiden claiming race, on 4-year-old filly Winstride for owner Roxsana Barbaran and trainer Horacio Barbaran. Winstride paid $38.40. In the third race, a claiming sprint, Villa-Gomez won on another 4-year-old filly, Jazillion Smiles, for owner Bathen Thoroughbreds LLC and trainer Luis Dominguez. The winner paid $18.80.
Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Daniel Centeno also rode two winners, giving him 57 for the meet. Centeno won the seventh race, a claiming sprint, on 3-year-old filly Portofappeal for owners Nannette and James McCullough and trainer James McCullough. Centeno returned to the winner’s circle after the ninth on 8-year-old gelding Dazzlin Dr Cologne, owned by Jennifer Harries and trained by Jorge Navarro.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m.
Saturday attendees will receive a free umbrella with paid admission while supplies last.
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.