The way Twin Creeks Racing Stables Team Manager Randy Gullatt looks at it, everyone surrounding Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby contender Vinceremos has a specific job to perform.
But on Saturday at about 5:25 p.m., it will mostly be up to the 3-year-old colt himself to determine whether Team Vinceremos remains alive for the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus.
The Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes winner is set to face nine sophomore rivals in the 34th renewal of the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby, which has produced two Kentucky Derby winners since 2007. If Vinceremos sweeps the Davis, the Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 3, owners Twin Creeks Racing and WinStar Farm will collect an additional $1-million from Tampa Bay Downs.
A three-race sweep would also reward long-time racing fan Ben Wheelock of Hudson, Fla., who is eligible to collect the Lambholm South $100,000 Fan Bonus after his name was drawn by Vinceremos’ jockey, Edgar Prado, following the Davis from about 300 fans who picked the winner.
The Tampa Bay Derby, scheduled as the 11th race on a 12-race card, is the centerpiece of the track’s annual Festival Day celebration, which begins at 12:25 p.m. The ninth race is the 16th running of the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf.
The 10th race is the 31st edition of the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf.
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, guaranteeing the winner a spot and putting the runner-up in good position.
Fans attending today will receive a free green-and-gold Festival Day 34 blanket with each paid admission, while supplies last. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the grandstand with track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” show, featuring top trainer H. Graham Motion. Admission is free.
Meanwhile, on today’s card, jockey Antonio Gallardo rode four winners to climb to within two wins of current leader Ronnie Allen, Jr., 68-66, in the Tampa Bay Downs standings. More on Gallardo’s big day below.
Back to Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ Gullatt, a Thoroughbred trainer for eight years, who picked Vinceremos out at last year’s Keeneland April Sale of 2-Year-Olds in training, convincing Twin Creeks Racing owner-director Steve Davison the colt was worth the $340,000 hammer price.
“I thought he was a very athletic horse that worked well within himself, and I loved his fluid movement and his walk. The more I watched him, the more I liked him,” Gullatt said.
Gullatt had no problem convincing his close friend Elliott Walden, the President/CEO and Racing Manager of WinStar Farm and a former trainer himself, to acquire a 50-percent share of Vinceremos. “Elliott and I look at horses on our own and compare notes, and when we are on the same page, a lot of times we decide to partner,” Gullatt said. “Every time we paid attention to Vinceremos (at the sale) he did well, so we went after it.”
After spending the summer at WinStar in Versailles, Ky., and overcoming a minor setback, Vinceremos was sent to the barn of leading North American trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled him for a runner-up effort in his career debut on Nov. 30 in a maiden special weight, six-furlong race at Gulfstream.
Vinceremos won his next two races – a 1-mile maiden special weight at Gulfstream on Jan. 4 and the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 1 – in heart-stopping fashion, rallying under Hall of Fame jockey Prado in the Davis for a nose victory from stablemate Harpoon.
So Gullatt has an equal appreciation for the job done by the main partners – Walden and WinStar, Pletcher and Prado – in getting Vinceremos to this stage.
And that explains why Gullatt isn’t second-guessing six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Pletcher, who – with a possible million bucks at stake – has entered another horse in the Tampa Bay Derby, Surfing U S A.
And in an irony Ben Wheelock may appreciate more than most observers, Surfing U S A is the 3-1 morning-line favorite, followed by the Mark Casse-trained Conquest Titan at 7-2 and Vinceremos at 4-1.
“I think the bonus is wonderful, and we’re going to give Vinceremos every opportunity to do that,” Gullatt said. “We have an opportunity to win it, and that’s all you can ask for.
“Todd has a lot of horses he has to manage, and he does an outstanding job working for each individual owner. We wouldn’t want him to take an opportunity away from Surfing U S A and that ownership group (George Bolton and Stonestreet Stables, LLC),” Gullatt said. “He has obviously earned his chance and it wouldn’t be fair for us to deprive him of that.
“When Saturday gets here, that’s when you have to let the horses do the talking.”
WinStar Farm is looking for its first Tampa Bay Derby victory, although the outfit won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, who finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Pletcher said Thursday that the Tampa Bay Derby – which he won last year with Verrazano and in 2004 with Limehouse – is an ideal spot for Surfing U S A to prove his mettle in terms of advancement on the Triple Crown trail.
After breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in a seven-furlong race on Nov. 30, Surfing U S A finished a game second to leading Kentucky Derby contender Top Billing in a mile-and-a-sixteenth allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.
“He has run well in all three of his starts, and he finished second last time after getting in a speed duel early,” Pletcher said. “I think he fits into the (Tampa Bay Derby) very well and he is a quality horse who is continuing to improve.”
While winning the $1-million bonus with Vinceremos would be tremendous, Pletcher knows there are reasons tracks are willing to take that kind of financial risk.
“Any time you structure a bonus around winning the Kentucky Derby, you have to get lucky in a lot of ways,” he said. “We try to do what we think is best for each horse. You would expect the Tampa Bay Derby to be tougher (than the Sam F. Davis), so they all need to improve to have a chance.
“Vinceremos is doing well and everything has gone according to plan since the Davis. Whether he has improved enough to win, we’ll find out Saturday.”
Back for another shot at Vinceremos are the third and fourth-place Sam F. Davis finishers, the Chad Brown-trained Cousin Stephen and the Mark Casse-trained Matador. The other entrants include the aforementioned Conquest Titan; Ring Weekend; Coltimus Prime; East Hall; Hy Kodiak Warrior; and Tuscan Getaway.
Numerous top trainers besides Pletcher have or are sending horses to Oldsmar for Festival Day 34, including Hall of Fame trainer William Mott (morning-line favorite Riposte in the Hillsborough Stakes and second-choice Miss Besilu in the Florida Oaks); Brown, whose four stakes entries include Cousin Stephen and Testa Rossi, the morning-line choice for the Florida Oaks; and 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning trainer H. Graham Motion, whose three stakes entrants include Endeavour Stakes winner Cloud Scapes in the Hillsborough.
The Hall of Famer Prado – who won the 2005 Tampa Bay Derby on Sun King – will return to ride Vinceremos, leading a powerful out-of-town riding contingent that also includes Javier Castellano, Julien Leparoux and Jose Lezcano.
Only four locally-based jockeys have won the Tampa Bay Derby in its past 20 runnings: Luis Garcia on Watch Me Go in 2011, Daniel Centeno on Musket Man in 2009, Lezcano on Deputy Glitters when he was leading jockey here in 2006, and Jorge Guerra on Thundering Storm in 1996.
In the vernacular of racetrack old-timers, trainer Chad Brown appears “loaded for bear” with his charges.
Cousin Stephen will receive the services of Castellano, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning jockey and current runaway leader in the Gulfstream Park standings. While he is only 1-for-4, Cousin Stephen was beaten less than a length by Vinceremos in the Sam F. Davis and has been training superbly at Brown’s Palm Meadows Training Center base for his return.
“I thought he handled the Tampa Bay Downs track well last time, so we figured it was logical to go back and try again,” Brown said.
Brown appears just as formidable in the turf races, with Martin S. Schwartz’s 4-year-old filly Waterway Run in the Hillsborough and a talented 1-2 punch in the Florida Oaks of James Covello, Thomas Coleman and DMZ Racing Stable’s French-bred Testa Rossi and Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey’s Kitten Kaboodle.
Brown and Schwartz teamed to win the 2012 Hillsborough with Zagora, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and an Eclipse Award. Waterway Run, who was purchased overseas by Schwartz, is 3-for-9 with a Group III victory to her credit as a 2-year-old in England. “It looks like she has plenty of ability, and she should fit well in graded stakes company in America,” Brown said.
Testa Rossi, who will be ridden by Jose Lezcano, drew the unfavorable outside No. 12 post position for the Florida Oaks, but her whirlwind runner-up finish last November in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita indicates her assignment might not be a factor. Kitten Kaboodle, to be ridden by Castellano, bled in the Breeders’ Cup race at Santa Anita without Lasix, and will get the diuretic for the Hillsborough.
“Testa Rossi (4-for-7 lifetime, with two seconds) is a top-class filly and we’re looking forward to a big 3-year-old year for her,” Brown said. “She is training very well (a four-furlong breeze on the Palm Meadows turf course Monday of 47.60 seconds, fastest of 27 at the distance). She drew a terrible post, so we’ll have to try to work on a trip from out there.”
As mentioned above, jockey Antonio Gallardo rode four winners to climb to within 69-66 of Ronnie Allen, Jr., for the top spot in the standings. Gallardo won the fourth race on 4-year-old filly Red Letter, a first-time starter owned by El Batey Farm, LLC and trained by Kathleen O’Connell. He returned to the winner’s circle after the sixth on 4-year-old filly Rheggibobbi for owner Ups and Downs Racing and trainer Monte Thomas.
Gallardo then won the seventh on 7-year-old gelding King Rock for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness, and added another victory for Ness and owner Mark Hoffman in the eighth race on 5-year-old mare Slander, who was claimed out of the race for $20,000 by owner-trainer M. Anthony Ferraro.
Allen won the ninth race on 5-year-old gelding Old Time Hockey for breeder-owner Glen Hill Farm and trainer Tom Proctor.
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.